This book is a memorial to Myrtle Solomon, a committed pacifist who inspired people by her example. It brings together her major writings, into each of which she succeeded in injecting a nugget of significance, of originality, of creative intelligence. Her interviews for oral histories give her a voice and reveal something of her personality even to those who did not know her. The tributes at her death, culled from numerous expressions of appreciation for her as a person and a leader, help explain why this book was seen as a suitable commemoration to a woman who engaged all her formidable energy in the cause of peace. The book primarily reflects Myrtle Solomon's work as chair of the War Resisters' International from 1975 to 1986.
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Speeches and reports
Tributes and short passages are also found below
Myrtle really helped me to learn a lot: nonviolence, anti-militarism, CO, and most important how to be radical in your struggle without falling into dogmatism, how to work together with others who may not follow the same strategy as you, but share a common commitment for peace and freedom; to respect each person's own level of involvement. Her personal example shows more on all this than any theoretical analysis.
Rafa Sainz De Rozas, Euskadi
True courage is not possessed by those who know no fear, but by those who do the things of which they are most afraid. I remember Myrtle's first attempts at open-air speaking and I know what they cost her. She later admitted what a tremendous effort it had been for her to speak for the WRI at the UN special session on disarmament in 1982. But perhaps she was bravest when she took on the acting secretaryship of the WRI and carried it through amid great difficulties, first in Brussels and later in London.
The Pacifist, Britain
I will remember Myrtle, standing up in the first of the decorated bullock carts, arriving at the ashram at Vedchhi like a peaceful Roman emperor, followed by singing and dancing youth from all over the world.
Ulf Norenius, Sweden
An appeal from Myrtle -- and it worked:
Please rescue me from this return to administrative office work in a foreign city [Brussels] where the traffic moves on the wrong side of the road and the potato chips (frites) are so delicious that I shall get fat. You need, the WRI needs, an energetic younger coordinator; so, please send in your financial backing now, earmarked for the coordinator's salary, and then I can return home to eat the beautiful tomatoes I grew on my roof during the London summer.
WRI Newsletter, 1978
The small but very strong woman with the will to see things survive and let things grow. She remained true to her original ideas and principles: the importance of resisting all kinds of conscription and, in connection with the growth of the peace movement, she always stated that it was better to stay small and truthful to our principles of removing all causes of war: "in our excitement of numbers, we must not lose our hearts", she often said.
Ellen Elster, Norway
Myrtle was one of the great and inspired people of the world peace movement and really it isn't the same world for her not to be available. She had wisdom, strength, common sense, and a wonderful, rare sense of humour. We were grateful for her commitment to keeping a strong link between WRI and IFoR.
The Steering Committee, International Fellowship of Reconciliation
Cancer conquered her physical resistance, but not her moral force. It was extraordinary to read that she was going out to the countryside 'to see a beautiful summer for the last time', still urging us to find money and carry out our worldwide anti-militarist and nonviolent action against war and the crazy arms race. Thank you, dear Myrtle, for having given us so much diplomacy and courage for peace.
Jean Van Lierde,
There are some people whose like one does not expect to meet again and Myrtle was one of those -- she cannot be replaced. Others can only try to live up to the standard she set.
We in the National Peace Council join with you in giving thanks for her life and her work for peace.
National Peace Council, Britain
Published in 1991 by the Myrtle Solomon Memorial Fund Sub-committee (of the Lansbury House Trust Fund) c/o War Resisters' International,
5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX, Britain
ISBN 0 903517 13
Edited by Mitzi Bales
Cover photograph by Ursula Hagedorn
Word processing by Jenna Stephens
Printed by Spider Web, 14/20 Sussex Way, London N7 6RS, England
Online edition edited and designed in August 2004 by Ken Simons
This page's URL: http://wri-irg.org/books/ms/openingdoors.htm
Myrtle Solomon made a vital contribution to the pacifist movement of the post-Second World War period. A close reading of the speeches, articles and interviews collected here provides an indication -- though no more than an indication -- of what that contribution was and the way in which she made it.
Myrtle's particular genius lay in her ability to hold people within an organisation together. Her outstanding achievement in this respect was to hold together that most centrifugal of forces, the international nonviolent movement, but she did much more than simply prevent it from falling apart. She, and the small dedicated team who worked with her, guided the movement's development and extended its outreach during a turbulent and challenging period.
She was able to do this partly through straightforward organisational ability. This is the aspect of her contribution to the movement that cannot come through in this collection of writings and speeches. But no one who has been closely involved in a movement for radical change can fail to appreciate how crucial it is to have competent administrators at its core. Such people have a particularly difficult task in a movement which is by instinct and tradition anti-bureaucratic. Myrtle, however, saw her role as essentially one of facilitating the movement to act effectively. She was the anti-bureaucrat's bureaucrat.
I experienced this aspect of Myrtle's ability at first hand when I was a member of the Executive of War Resisters' International in the late 1970s. At that time the organisation was on the very brink of disintegration. We had even got to the point of giving notice to the staff and examining the procedure for winding up. But Myrtle -- already the chair -- took over the task of coordinator. She moved into a tiny cell-like room in the Maison de la Paix in Brussels and took hold of the organisational reins. If she had not, there might well be no WRI today, and the nonviolent movement worldwide would be very much the poorer.
Holding the international movement together requires more than - organisational skills. It requires energy, dedication, and above all a sensitivity to people and to the various cultural and national traditions which shape people's consciousness and ways of behaving. Myrtle had this sensitivity to an exceptional degree, and something of this quality does come through in this collection.
I don't at all mean to suggest that she was 'saintly' -- rather the very opposite to what that term conjures up. She could get cross when she thought people were talking nonsense, deliver a waspish line, fight her corner with tenacity. When I went to visit her in hospital in 1985 after her serious operation for stomach cancer, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appeared on the television talking some reactionary nonsense or other. Myrtle was furious. 'I really hate that woman,' she said passionately. She was no ascetic either -- though she was capable of living frugally if the circumstances demanded it. She liked a drink and a cigarette and she loved to entertain. As she says in her interview for the Imperial War Museum:
I'm not a person who can't say a harsh word, or do a harsh thing. I can. I don't think I live a very pacifist way of life because there is a sense of denying yourself a great deal of material comfort since so much of the world is in famine, or in total poverty, and I'm not very good at that. Which doesn't mean to say that I live what would be called a high life in London, but I've already smoked during this interview quite a few cigarettes and will be looking forward to a drink, which a lot of pacifists would deny themselves. But it's no good. I'm no less a war resister for that.
This frankness about herself was matched by a shrewd understanding of the people she came into contact with. She positively savoured people's individual -- and collective -- quirkiness. This, and her generosity and sense of humour, made her marvellous company. It was great fun staying with her. She studied her guests, knew their preferences, and went to great pains to see they were met. She was a truly creative and entertaining 'gossip' because she combined canny insight with genuine affection. She had this wonderful, wicked laugh which started somewhere deep inside her and ended up convulsing her whole body. She could get angry with people, but she didn't bear grudges.
It was this capacity to get inside other people's skin that enabled her to adjust very quickly to different cultural situations and made her such a good internationalist. She could relate to the ambience of metropolitan London or Brussels, but equally to that of a Gandhian Ashram in the heart of rural India. The text of her opening address to the WRI Triennial in Vedchhi, included here, doesn't do full justice to the comic double act that she and one of the conference organisers, Uttera Desai, put on there in their contributions, but her wry comments about the symbolism of the broom capture something of its flavour:
I understand that the way this broom is made ... is supposed to represent a woman, since here in India they [the women] are associated with the sweeping. Perhaps, at last, I have found an area where we are in advance of you. We women in the West make sure our men share in the sweeping! They cannot have it both ways: the responsibility of power but escape the responsibility of cleaning up the mess they have made. The passage illustrates her wry humour and her keen sense of the audience. She would often seize upon some handy prop, preferably one that had a particular local or national significance, and use it to make her political point. She wasn't an outstanding orator, but she knew how to produce the striking image, the ringing phrase. Take the following from her speech to the UN in 1982:
Talk of disarmament has become a mythical ritual -- a strange macabre dance of millions of words - but the weapons are never put down. To justify a totally illusory need, a whole new language has been invented by a sick society dominated by its weaponry. Enemies have to be invented to justify the colossal expenditure in terms of money, skills and labour. 'A strange macabre dance of millions of words'. As an image of the wrangles over disarmament, both inside and outside the UN forum, this could hardly be bettered.
Myrtle's feel for metaphor and symbol was doubtless related to the theatrical training she underwent as a young woman when her ambition was to be an actress. She put this talent and training to good use also in other respects -- for instance in devising themes and costumes for public demonstrations, or in reacting spontaneously to difficult situations. There was the famous occasion when an argument was becoming particularly heated at one WRI gathering. Finding that nothing she said could restrain the protagonists, she suddenly stripped off her blouse and poured a jug of water over herself. The meeting dissolved in laughter. The tension was broken.
As a young woman during the Second World War, Myrtle worked in an armaments factory. Discussing these experiences in the Imperial War Museum interview, her generosity of spirit and disarming frankness are equally evident. She says that rescuing the occupied countries, rather than defeating the Germans as such, was what chiefly motivated her. She felt a greater sense of elation on hearing that Paris was liberated than when they were told in London, 'It's all over and you can go out in the streets and make merry.' However, when the interviewer suggests that perhaps rescuing the Germans themselves was part of her motivation, she disavows this:
No. I would like to be able to say yes to that. No, no, I don't remember that.
Fellow pacifists, she states, were sometimes shocked to learn of her war work. I hope that today most pacifists would not be shocked and would accept the point she makes about it: 'I think that every person has to do what they believe to be right anyhow, and I certainly felt it was right to do that.' Had the war been fought for some 'frivolous reason', she says, she might have felt guilty afterwards about the work she had undertaken. As it was, she felt no sense of guilt and nor was it guilt which drove her to devote so much time subsequently to the pacifist cause. But she adds: 'nor do I imply ... that I think those that didn't take part should feel guilt -- the other way round.' Myrtle was surely right about this and right too in her judgement that because she hadn't spent her whole life in a pacifist environment she was better able to understand non-pacifists than most people in the movement. 'I have never,' she says, 'fallen into the trap of taking a ... purist attitude in any way.'
This indeed was one of the most refreshing things about her -- and the thing that endeared her to many people on the edge of the movement who were not one hundred per cent paid-up pacifists. She gave the movement a human face. Having made a personal commitment to the pacifist position, she was strong enough not to pretend to have all the answers. To cite again the interview for the Imperial War Museum:
The thing I found so difficult to answer was how do you rescue France, and the countries that I had wanted to, without [a war], and of course I've never really found the answer to that one ... That's still a very difficult one for me.
She understood, of course, that pacifists had to develop adequate responses to such dilemmas:
This is what I'm trying to learn but of course I'm 60 now and I suppose I won't manage it, but at least I'm in a movement that's trying to learn such experience ... A large number of theories in peace research and so on are being worked on. I'm still a bit sceptical about it but this would be the sort of nonviolent intervention in a war situation, or a situation of violence.
When the interviewer asks 'What do you mean?' she replies with characteristic frankness:
You may well ask. I mean we're constantly what I call playing games, doing scenarios of that situation and trying to find the way to intervene nonviolently. And one thing that is felt pretty strongly in pacifist circles is that it isn't laughable to experiment on a low level ... And to a certain extent, there's been a great deal of success there, but of course it's very small, it's very small work. But it's all a part of a learning process I think.
In another passage she stresses the need of the movement to find the 'yeses' as well as the 'nos':
So we're far too much people who say no to something ... and that would be my main disappointment with the movement. Now I haven't got all the answers, I don't know all the yesses, and that's what I wish many more people were working on ... because I would like to learn a great deal more about positive peacemaking.
The interview with Margot Farnham for the book on lesbian life stories, Inventing Ourselves, provides insights into her character and background even for those of us who knew her well. She did not hide her lesbianism in the movement but, as she says, she didn't broadcast it either, or indeed talk much about it. I was personally unaware too that it was through her involvement with the Women for Westminster campaign that she met Sybil Morrison and first became aware of the pacifist movement.
She says in that interview that 'slowly, as the years went on I realised I wasn't going to fall in love with a man.' Obviously there is a sense in which that remained the case. Yet the warmth of her feelings for the people, women and men, who worked closely with her was love in a very real sense. She felt an intensely personal concern too for the young conscientious objectors from various countries facing hardship and imprisonment for the stance they had taken. This comes across, I think, in the plea she makes in her address to the Youth and Conscription Symposium for CO movements not to treat as 'outcasts' those whose consciences moved them to become 'total resisters'.
I believe we must respect their conscience just as we expect the State to recognise the CO's position by providing an acceptable alternative service.
A word, finally, about her great spirit and determination. It took that to rescue War Resisters International from collapse in the 1970s. It showed itself again in the way she fought her illness. Very shortly after her operation, she defied the hospital authorities to leave her bed for the afternoon and put in an unannounced appearance in Dawes Street where she had previously laid on a party for the WRI Executive. There was a loud knock on the door and in hobbled Myrtle on two walking sticks which she raised in the air in a gesture of defiance.
She was really not well enough for the rigours of the WRI triennial in Vedchhi, but she willed herself to hold on and be there, and make her contribution. When the bulk of the participants arrived at the perimeter of the Ashram to be met by a procession of bullock carts, she was there standing, smiling and triumphant in the leading one to greet us. For many of us, it is the last enduring image by which we will remember her.
Michael Randle was chair of WRI from 1966-73 and a member of the WRI Executive until 1988. He is coordinator of the UK Social Defence Project and lives in Bradford, Yorkshire, England.
Nonviolent struggle and peacebuilding
The major published work by Myrtle Solomon was this chapter for Over Our Dead Bodies, edited by Dorothy Thompson and published by Virago in 1983. The clarity and cogency of the argument makes this one of Myrtle's best writings. Each contributor to this book held the copyright of her own chapter, so the WRI has offered free access to reprint or quote any or all parts of this piece.
The theory and practice of nonviolence has been discussed and used throughout history and increasingly in this century. It may well be a response to the growing fear of, and revulsion from war, and the ever-growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness experienced by so many people today.
Nonviolent resistance to bad laws or to oppression is essentially a 'do-it-yourself' tool. It carries no guarantee of success in every situation, but it must be remembered that at least as much uncertainty goes with methods of war and violence. The successes and failures gained by warlike action in the past have had little to do with the justice or moral strength of the victorious cause. Usually the more cunning or stronger side has overcome the weaker or less prepared, but in many cases justice has been on the side of the loser, and in many cases, too, the problems that were fought over could have been solved without violence or bloodshed -- and indeed still remained to be solved after the war and bloodshed were over.
The pacifist has liberated him or herself from the tradition of war, by renouncing the whole concept of war as a means either of defence, or of effecting change, or even of throwing off an oppressive military or dictatorial regime.
Nonviolent struggle is not, however, exclusively a pacifist approach. It may be seen as a tactic for meeting conflict and even military strength without armed action. The reasons for using it may be those of expedience-there may be no arms available; or morality-a desire to avoid the taking of life; or simply pragmatic-the recognition of the fact that violence simply begets further violence and rarely leads to a permanent solution of any problem.
Nonviolence is natural to every one of us in our daily lives; very few women-or men-solve their personal problems by injuring or murdering the person with whom they are in disagreement. Nonviolent resistance has been used many times in collective struggles against oppression, even against armed aggression. The most recent example has been in Poland, where a sustained nonviolent campaign was undertaken by the workers, rebelling against intolerable economic conditions and an incompetent and repressive government. Methods used in this and other such struggles in the past, included non-cooperation with authority, strikes, boycotts, alternative systems within neighbourhoods and other forms of unarmed resistance. Even armed invasion and military-backed occupation have been met with nonviolent resistance, as in Norway and Holland under the Nazis or in British India. The Gandhian movement against British domination helped to inspire the civil rights movement in the United States, led by Martin Luther King. During the Vietnam war the Buddhists practised similar nonviolent tactics with great effect, on world opinion as well as on the occupying forces.
All these nonviolent responses to threats and oppression offer experiences and material which could have been more widely used and studied and might well have prevented other wars and saved many lives.
It is, of course, doubtful whether an unarmed nation, using nonviolent methods, could prevent an invasion or guarantee adequate defence against a full-scale armed attack. Nonviolent resistance can certainly, in the end, make an oppressive regime disintegrate and could seriously disrupt a military invasion. The point of this chapter, however, is to indicate why the pacifist has no faith in even limited armed resistance, and does not believe that partial or selective disarmament will avert the threat or practice of war, or offer the defence or security we are all indoctrinated to believe is essential to our survival.
A pacifist believes that a lasting solution to the problems of the world can only be found once the decision has been made to refuse to use the method of war. Once this last-resort threat (which may, indeed, on occasion be a first-response on impulse to an imagined danger) has been renounced, the skills of the human race will find new ways to develop their ideologies and will learn to live without using killing and destruction as a means of imposing these ideologies on others. The ultimate goal must be to remove the words 'peace' and 'war' from our vocabularies and to build a society based on justice and reverence for life.
This century has seen an escalation in the quantity of armaments, in nuclear weapons and all other instruments of death, on a scale hitherto unknown. It has seen two world wars and hundreds of more limited conflicts, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of citizens, some fully armed, some unarmed, many incapable of bearing arms. The terrible consequences have been seen throughout the world-homelessness, disease, crippled and distorted bodies, the disruption of anything approaching a 'normal' life, changes of regime, sometimes for the better but often towards even more repressive and militarist systems.
After the nuclear bomb was used against Japan, a sense of shock slowly spread through the world as more and more knowledge of its power seeped, almost like radiation after-effects, into the minds of men and women. Had our masters at last gone too far by inventing a weapon capable of destroying life on earth? Had they in fact invented a weapon which by its very nature would make the Second World War the last? In 1945 this seemed possible, but we ignored the warnings or were too unaware of the implications. The chance of building a sane world during the first few years after the ending of the Second World War was lost, and nation followed nation down the slippery slope towards disaster. Today, we who live, live on the edge of the greatest danger ever faced by the human race, and one of the symptoms of our disease is the highly infectious ability to create enemies and then fear what the enemy could do to us. Former enemies become allies, old allies become enemies. Armaments increasingly control the relationships between states, and have been used again and again in the many wars suffered, since 1945, in the third world countries under the patronage of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Over all our heads hangs the ever-nearing cloud of the H-bomb. With the increase of this threat has come a growing awareness that our leaders, be they military 'experts', 'responsible politicians', or ministers of state, are no longer in control of the armaments they have helped to invent and manufacture. Caught up in the spiral of the arms race, we have not found the way to a breakthough.
It is precisely because we live in a world where political leaders so easily resort to military solutions, and where those military solutions today could result in nuclear conflict, that the institution of war itself must be challenged and abolished. Over thirty years have been wasted and all efforts between states to improve the situation have failed. Although some will apportion blame for this failure to the USA and the USSR, such analysis gets us nowhere, indeed it serves to stimulate the fear which in turn permits the arms race to accelerate. All we have to recognise is that both major powers and their allies have stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to the point at which they threaten all humankind. Therefore they have to be stopped. We, the people of the world, can no longer trust any government to decide who is our enemy, nor trust their judgement as to when diplomacy and negotiotion can be said to have failed. On their judgements war is declared, but it is we, the people, who are ordered to do the killing and to 'lay down our lives' at their call.
Too many people today are obsessed by the need for 'defence' and look only to armaments for their security. This is one of several reasons for the lack of progress in disarmament, and still no one feels 'secure'. The disarmament movement stumbles at the same hurdle. There are many movements working actively in different parts of the world. Their approaches differ. Some are more cautious than others, some put their faith in the United Nations, others in unilateral initiatives; but all are calling for a halt and trying to bring the world to its senses. Common to many is the call for the banning of the use and ownership of nuclear weapons. It is not too difficult to prove that such weapons cannot be included in the category of 'defence purposes only' items-nor indeed that a country without nuclear weaons, being less of a threat to the superpowers, might in fact be safer for that reason and a less likely target for destruction. But so deep-seated are fears of attack or invasion that, in order to prove that their position is both desirable and practical, or perhaps in the hope of being taken more seriously by those in power, the search for alternative defence methods plays an important part in the programmes of many of these movements.
A great deal of energy, research and thought has, for example, been put into what is usually called 'popular civilian defence'-the idea of a people's armed force, trained to defend in an emergency but not to be used outside the nation's territory. Those who advocate this position believe it to be both practicable and possible but they can no more prove that a partially disarmed country could survive a nuclear attack or armed invasion from a superior force, than the military strategists have been able to prove that their vast nuclear arsenals can guarantee a future without war or survival after a war. My main objection to this position is that the conception of armed defence remains, the training for war continues, the know-how for the manufacture of nuclear weapons still exists and new weapons can still be invented and quietly stored 'at home' or put on the market for others to use.
The pacifist's position is totally different because she or he is not concerned with defence and, in fact, has renounced armed defence of any kind. Nor has he or she ever felt secure or protected while living in a society that relies on war to solve its problems or to meet an attack from another country.
It is necessary to emphasise the extreme peril we are facing today in order to put the pacifist position in its proper perspective, and to suggest that disarmament trends that concentrate on alternative forms of defence are not only moving too cautiously but in the wrong direction. We have seen that if we continue to rely on nuclear weapons under the myth of deterrence, that some time-possiby in this century-we are doomed to die and to kill millions of others in the process. If we refuse to make or to use these nuclear weapons, but retain and perfect other means of so-called defence, we continue to sanction war and not one step towards peacebuilding will have been made.
Pacifists have no proven plans for unarmed defence. They do not believe that humanity can reverse the course of history simply by abolishing the more advanced weapons, nor that it would be desirable to revert to the use of the so-called 'conventional weapons' that have been the cause of death to nearly thirty million people since 1945.
The third approach, that of total disarmament, backed by a revolutionary foreign policy and a refusal to sanction the method of war is a step that carries risks, but the risks we face daily are far greater, and meeting them with caution and compromise has not lessened the danger. Therefore a great leap into the unknown has to be made. Some would call it a leap into the dark, but those who believe that war is both immoral and outmoded see a light in the distance.
Although it is impossible to guarantee security through nonviolent civilian defence-and it is recognised that nonviolent resistance is unlikely to prevent an armed invasion-training and practising nonviolence is a way of changing our whole society and of protecting values in a way that no war or armed revolution has ever achieved. The power of nonviolence is not to be seen as an alternative to war but as a different way of bringing peace and justice into the world. Nonviolent resistance has to be matched with peace education and learning how to deal with conflict, whether in our own neighbourhood or under threat of oppression or aggression, without the response of physical violence.
The purpose of nonviolent action is related not so much to the absence of violence as such, as to the need to achieve change. To change a situation without violence means that opponents have to understand one another's viewpoints instead of killing or defeating each other. An opponent has to be disarmed in both senses of the word. Being unarmed yourself is already one step ahead in the process of negotiation because you pose no immediate threat. Your opponent can, of course, kill you, just as you might have killed him had you been armed, but short of this there are innumerable ways in which military strength can be undermined and thwarted by sustained nonviolence and non-cooperation. Anyone already committed to a programme of disarmament and protest should add to his or her duties the study and practice of nonviolent resistance.
No people are more fitted than women to take a leading role in the nonviolent struggle for peace. This is not to suggest support for the view of women as 'the weaker sex'; on the contrary, it is to recognise the peculiar resilience and courage which they share, perhaps just because they have not, as yet, got into the habit of using the gun as a means of attack or defence. The human addiction to violence has to be challenged and curbed, not by sermons or theoretical tomes, but by action and by the practice of nonviolent alternatives.
There is nothing passive in this conception of a new attitude towards conflict and war. Nor is it a dream outside reality; it is a way of saying 'give peace a chance', that moving call to open doors on a new world which would concentrate less on the balance of weaponry or the debate on defence, and more on learning to live. The pacifist cannot offer a blueprint for a solution to our predicament, but neither can the militarists who have brought us into it. Those who decide that, under certain circumstances, they would be prepared to wage war must face the fact that it is then logical to maintain the most powerful weapons available. Those who have renounced the whole method of war are committed to resist every form of its preparation and should be prepared to train for nonviolent responses with a dedication that few in the armed services are called to give. It is wrong to liken nonviolence to passivity or neutralism. Of course there have been failures and setbacks, but the main weakness to date in the experience on nonviolence has been the failure to sustain confidence in its power in the face of opposition.
If the human race could put the same courage and faith in nonviolence that it has put into war, constantly seeking to improve techniques and adapting methods to suit new needs, the tools for building peace would become increasingly creative and effective. It has taken two thousand years to bring us to a situation in which, demonstrably, war must be removed from society or society must perish. Nonviolence is not an alternative to war, but a way of living positively. Nonviolent resistance and nonviolent defence are only steps towards this totality, which must start from within the individual. No government can order its people to disarm or conscript them into nonviolent training as it can order them into war. The movement must start from the will of the people, from their refusal to bear arms or to prepare for war. Nor must we wait for other nations, allies or enemies, to take the initiative, but must start here and now for ourselves; the smaller nations are best fitted to take the lead, representing as they do links in the chain of power held by the superpowers. Let us snap those links before it is too late.
Conscription and conscientious objection-heritage of the past for youth
This was published in Youth and Conscription, edited by Kimmo Kiljunen and Jouko Vaananen (International Peace Bureau/War Resisters' International/Peace Union of Finland/Union of Conscientious Objectors in Finland), 1987. This article began as a speech to the symposium on Youth and Conscription in Finland in December 1985. For many participants, Myrtle's speech was the highlight of the event.
The common factor of conscription and Conscientious Objection is that both represent a status imposed by the aged upon youth and both are related to war. Today those enforcing conscription mainly do so in the name of peace and security, and those who oppose it disagree with this assumption. I shall relate both positions to our heritage today only as far back as the First World War, although conscription and resistance to it go back in history far longer.
Conscription is directly linked to the state's reliance on the method of war and armed power as the means of solving conflict, meeting threat, defending or obtaining ideology and territory, seeking liberation from oppression, maintaining national law and order. All this is the ground base for conscription to a military machine, whether the state is at war, feels threatened or is at peace; but conscription to the military always indicates a willingness to enter into war for whatever reason.
Conscientious Objection to war and militarism and all that constitutes conscription is a denial of all these factors but does not mean throughout history COs have shown indifference to security, democracy and justice. On the contrary, it is the method they challenge, the use of war as a means to an end.
Conscription-the call to arms-in times of war was believed heroic, patriotic, chivalrous, even romantic, and men and women from statesmen to the average citizen responded to the magic wizardry of the call. There has, of course, been an enemy or some diabolical threat but this is never difficult to find nor to exploit. The formula to serve your country, protect your family and the land is not difficult to develop and soon the curtains of war are raised. After two world wars waged in Europe, the image of romantic courage has greatly lessened but the sense of duty, patriotism, nationalism and the reliance on armed strength and training for wars remains deeply rooted.
The conscript and the CO have more in common than is immediately recognisable. They share the burden of bravery and isolation from a normal life, disruption of family life, education and work and frequently, in wartime, but not always, they share a desire to protect what they value. I said not always because the conscript has fought in many a war for a cause he did not believe in or understand, alongside another totally committed and fired by patriotism. Similarly, but with a very different outcome, the CO has rejected the system of war even when the cause seemed to him just or, on a selective political basis, he has found it impossible to support his government in a particular war. A government has full military and legislative powers to conscript its youth, be it for training or to engage in war. Some religions demand of their believers obedience to Conscientious Objection but as yet no government has enforced Conscientious Objection on the nation. Governments reserve the right to call up their people to defend the nation or attack another.
To fight or learn to fight in the armed forces has become a normal feature of most societies, an honour or a duty. To be unprepared, underarmed and undermanned is rated as a dangerous weakness. So, whether willing or unwilling, the person called to arms has to be trained to kill and face the possibility of his or her own death in the conflict.
Youth today faces two daunting facts:
- the heritage of still vivid memories of two devastating wars and the struggle against invasion with millions dead, and
- the resultant militarisation of our societies, the build-up of arms and the subsequent continuance and acceptance of the normality and necessity of compulsory military training. Today, throughout Europe and other parts of the world, military training is as much a part of growing up as is school or an apprenticeship to a trade-a system supported by state and family alike even when a country is not at war or under an immediate threat.
The objector therefore has had to stand aside from all that is considered normal. It appears to be a voluntary act but in fact it is dominated by a compulsion that comes from his or her own convictions as he or she exercises a right to refuse to kill in times of war or to learn to kill in times of peace.
Since 1914 the motivation has been based on the refusal to accept war or militarism as the solution, the reverence for all lives rather than the lives of one side in the conflict, and the conviction that a government is not and cannot always be right.
Few people step out of line just for fun, especially to stand up and be counted as 'outcasts' or 'cowards'. The CO is as 'self-conscripted' as the conscript, and in his case he can do no other. Most are sustained by a passionate conviction and dedication which only a few training in uniform share, but they are isolated from society while the soldier becomes a hero. Their common factor can be their bravery and perhaps fear of the unknown; their doubts as to how they will behave under stress. Thus we see that the law of the state has legalised murder while condemning it in all other circumstances.
My first introduction to Conscientious Objection came from the pages of a little pamphlet called Troublesome People and from the few First World War COs I have met. Their stand against conscription and war was remarkable and indeed heroic. Their motivation varied as much as ours do today but their treatment was much more severe, some would say barbaric. Many died as a result of the strain on their physical and mental health from being forced into uniform, taken to the front line under sentence of death, or serving prison sentences for as long as ten years. Libertarians in public life and parliament began to recognise the integrity of these social outcasts and campaigned for their more humane treatment. The notion of an alternative unarmed service evolved in a limited way, but many were unable to accept the alternative, knowing that if they did, they would be releasing another person to take part in the war they themselves had rejected. What emerges clearly is that, no matter what their motivation was-religious, moral or political-they were all obstinate people and troublesome to the state. This we have inherited.
Just as today, some COs were pacifists opposed to war on principle, convinced that it undermined and destroyed mutual responsibility between the people of all nations, others would never concede to the state the right to estimate the individual of so little importance as to compel him or her to sacrifice their lives to the community or to inflict death on their brothers and sisters. The grand words 'the brotherhood of man', now criticised as sexist, made it impossible to take up arms against those who shared a similar social status of poverty, oppression and deprivation. The CO expressed the class revolution in a special way.
The persecution those World War I COs endured is not a subject for this Symposium but it was from those who survived that the movement of conscience has grown, as well as the slow and often reluctant recognition from states and the public that COs are neither cowards nor cranks. We inherit their fortitude and example, for no legal reform has come without years of protest and persuasion, long and repeated prison sentences and punitive discrimination, much of which still exists. But changes there have been-changes in attitude from the public and COs themselves-and some are in direct contradiction to the resistance expressed some 70 years ago.
In earlier days a CO may well have thought his stand unique. Often it wasn't until in prison or facing military discipline he found he was not alone and that in many countries a support movement was emerging. But even these movements were largely ignorant of the existence of like-minded people spread across the world, across enemy frontiers. In most parts of the world these were based on such ideologies as 'No More War' and 'No More Conscription'. WRI came from these roots in Holland and in the United Kingdom in 1921. I liken the resistance to war to the miracle of the stone age: thousands of miles and years apart, the early implements and tools of civilisation were devised by men and women to serve the needs of the community. Sharing knowledge or skills was not possible. Yet, incredibly, similar tools have been found in all parts of the world, designed for the same task for survival. COs all over the world, without communication, conferences, seminars or the written word initiated their resistance from out of the individual heart and mind. There was in fact a worldwide movement who knew not what the other did and thought.
It was a reaction to the accusation of disloyalty that the opposition to conscription expressed in the First World War became diverted gradually to what today we would call reform.
Challenged again in 1939, the CO in war was, in many but not all countries, tolerated with greater consideration than in 1914. The known number of COs increased and there were in some areas better possibilities for an alternative noncombatant service. But we should remember today that the acceptance of military conscription as something normal in so-called peacetime was never envisaged by those who resisted in the First World War or even the Second World War.
It is the youth of today and since 1945 who have inherited a system almost as rigid as it was in wartime. But it is the old stigma of disloyalty against the COs which has stimulated the desire for a recognised and acceptable status in society, and which now brings Conscientious Objection into its new era-that of a human right. This is an important change which alters the complexion of conscientious objection while the purpose remains the same.
The desire to serve humanity, to put more into life than to take from it, lies deep in us all and is certainly a characteristic of young people today if frustration does not break out into violence and vandalism. It is abhorrent to be classed as disloyal or a parasite on those who are prepared to take up arms or on the state itself. The CO is an ordinary human being moved, among other actions, to disarm unilaterally. What was previously an individual act with the best of political motives has become a collective mission-not only to oppose war which today most COs in Europe have not had to do, but to serve humanity, particularly where humans suffer most among the deprived and oppressed. This has led the CO to reject all aspects of violence and militarism which is destroying our societies today both in the North and South of the globe.
This willingness to serve has frequently led to the pursuit of an alternative service that is socially useful and creative, and to gain recognition by preparing new options and reforming adverse or harsh laws.
Little about conscription has changed over the years. We inherit the same call to arms for the some reasons. The advent of nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war has not changed the state's will to make martial demands of youth. The same form of dehumanisation and hatred has to be fostered and bred into the make-up of the conscript. The common denominator between the CO and the conscript is the determination of the state or those who administer our growth and education to control its youth; but the CO has to prove conscience in some way; the conscript soldier is asked only unquestioning obedience. The CO is still regarded as a troublemaker who seeks to question and doubt his master, who challenges foreign policy and priorities of his nation and its allies.
There is one great difference from the past. In the first and second world wars, many COs were absolutists or, as we call them today, total resisters. Where and if an alternative service was available, a large number of COs accepted this provision, but all sought together to break the power of the military authority and their different approach did not divide them. I inherited their mutual respect and goodwill towards each other and greatly lament that this example is seemingly lost.
All COs were outcasts during those wars whatever they did or refused to do. Today many of the CO movements and their counsellors have made an outcast of the total resister and no longer oppose conscription as such. They believe that acceptance of total resistance is out of predictable reach and is counterproductive since the punishment is almost invariably prison. I believe we must respect total resisters' consciences just as we expect the state to recognise the CO's position by providing an acceptable alternative service. It is the desire for peace and justice that we have inherited. It is peace and justice we are determined to achieve. The causes of war are well documented but roads to peace are there to explore-there are no proven ways. We build for the living as we resist oppression by nonviolent means. The passion and obstinancy that led men and women to say no to war is one way to our objective, and we have to express this in the way we believe the means will justify the resolve. This will include not only a refusal to military conscription but also to all things related to militarism in research, industry, science and education: all things which affect men and women alike, young and older.
I venture an analogy with the campaign against capital punishment for murder. The arguments against capital punishment are that it is no deterrent, it is morally repugnant and there is the possibility of making a mistake about someone's guilt. War is clearly no deterrent, it is morally repugnant and frequently there have been mistakes. Wars that could have been avoided have been fought. The side with the just cause does not always come out on top.
Finally I should say that the CO today is not seeking solitary confinement-though the CO's position may lead to a period of solitary confinement in prison. Conscientious Objection today is not solely in reaction to conscription to military service. It is an objection of conscience against military strength. It is an act of peace. It questions the accepted method of meeting threat and conflict and even to gaining liberation from oppression.
Conscription is an act of despair and weakness. It has become traditional but not normal. To conscript young people to wage the wars which have been caused by the folly or misjudgement of an older or previous generation is a crime. It is the compulsory aspect which makes the crime, and youth today carries this burden of the past. I am glad to work alongside those who resist and have resisted such a strange way of using life.
It was a natural and essential part of Myrtle Solomon's work as chair of the War Resisters' International to make speeches and write reports. Here is a cross-section of such work during Myrtle's 10-year leadership of the WRI.
Scrap the lot!
This is the text of an address to the UN Special Session on Disarmament in New York in 1982. It was the most important speech Myrtle Solomon made to government representatives, and certainly the most demanding of a person to whom oratory did not come easily.
It used to be said that it is better to talk nation to nation, person to person, than to attempt to solve any difficult situation through waging war. This remains true, but we have been talking now for too long even in this great assembly, which generated so much faith and hope in 1945. During this period nation after nation has converted its ploughshares into swords and its swords into weapons whose destructive powers go beyond our imagination or ability to control.
During that time, many millions of people have been killed in over 130 wars. Millions more have died and are dying from starvation or neglect and oppression. We have reached the time when even the talking must give place to positive action and a totally different approach to the causes of war and the myth of defence.
The war game must be put away and we must bring out the jigsaw of real peacemaking, each one of us contributing to the complicated pattern that makes life possible for the living. Dis armament is one facet of this process; while we the people wait for general agreement between governments and particularly between the superpowers and those that hold the nuclear weapons, while we watch or read about the thousands of meetings they too have endured, no single effective weapon has been destroyed. The stockpiles have greatly increased and no nation feels the more secure. On the contrary, most people live in deepening fear and the dangers of a suicidal war are increasingly real. We the people have less and less control over both the invention and the use of such weapons. It is because we live in a world where political leaders so easily resort to military solutions that the very institution of war must be challenged and abolished, and the power of being able to use these weapons taken away from those who rely upon them.
Talk of disarmament has become a mythical ritual -- a strange macabre dance of millions of words -- but the weapons are never put down. To justify a totally illusory need, a whole new language has been invented by a sick society dominated by its weaponry. Enemies have to be invented to justify the colossal expenditure in terms of money, skills and labour.
I speak for a body of war resisters scattered throughout the world who have long since personally renounced the method of war as a means of solving conflict. These are men and women who have studied and practised a totally different approach to maintaining security and attaining justice and freedom from oppression. It is slower and more difficult than resorting to war, and sometimes -- just as in war -- it may fail, but never with the unacceptable death toll of today's wars.
It is therefore imperative that we fully understand our motives for promoting disarmament. There are innumerable well documented programmes from experts on, and supporters of, disarmament. All have merit, all are possible, but we will achieve this objective only if and when there is the true will and determination to do so. In our view, that can come only if we understand the causes of war and promote disarmament for the purposes of its abolition. When we speak of disarmament we are not speaking of weakness, but of strength and a refusal to resort to the method of war. It is not sufficient to freeze, outlaw or abolish the stockpiles or use of nuclear weapons -- important though that would be -- in order to more easily return to the so-called good old days of the so-called conventional weapon. There is no such thing as a conventional weapon, and whenever we speak of armaments we should always remember we are speaking of murder and death.
Now is the time to look more carefully at the much maligned and misunderstood position of the pacifist and war resister. We who have opposed war for so long can offer a third way out of this hideous dilemma. Members of War Resisters' International have been training for nonviolent resistance and working for nonviolent civilian defence since 1921. I have the honour as their chairperson to represent the nonviolent activists and scholars in Asia, Europe, the USA, in South Africa and Latin and Central America and, to a lesser degree, in the Middle East. Their unrelenting commitment cannot be ignored whether it is expressed by their conscientious objection to military conscription (which at best invokes discrimination, but all too often results in prison sentences) or by other acts of nonviolent resistance to oppression.
The basis of nonviolence is no irresponsible dream, as is the nightmare of war. It involves a dedicated commitment which is no longer a prerequisite of those called or forced to wage war.
Because nonviolent resistance rejects warfare itself, it cannot truly be called an alternative to war. But it is a way of breaking through the shackles of armed force and diverting our skills to a better purpose and the benefit of all people, especially those who live and die all too soon in the poorer countries. The war resister is a troublesome person who frequently challenges accepted traditions by unusual methods which include mass civil disobedience and extensive educational programmes among the young -- but most of us are quite sane and have learned to fight for values without killing for those values. The conscientious objector understands the meaning of unilateral disarmament -- an example that should be followed by the states.
It has been said in military terms that 'only the greatest of generals knows when to turn back'. Since we live in a military society, I believe that great moment of conscience has arrived. But I suggest that we change the phrase from 'go back' to 'go forward'. Now is the time for the nonaligned nations and the smaller nations to put words into action and to show the superpowers that we have had enough. It is the superpowers who are holding us back.
Unilateral disarmament and initiatives will start the process towards total disarmament. We the people are clamouring, demanding and begging our own countries to start and take the risks of peace. We are ready to accept those risks which, when weighed against those of the arms race and the iniquitous sale of arms, we believe to be infinitely less threatening. Nor do we believe that unilateral disarmament will remain literally one-sided. Others will follow. Nor do we believe that the unarmed nation is in immediate danger of being invaded -- but should there come an invasion from without or an insurrection from within, then we can be trained to meet it. For example, the War Resisters' International members would have known how to deal with the Falklands/Malvinas crisis nonviolently. There could have been no loss of life and no loss of face. Real negotiations could have taken place.
The lack of caution shown over the last decades in relation to rearmament has no relation to the excessive caution and hesitation expressed by most nations towards disarmament even in this great assembly. Caution on this particular issue has become the excuse for no action. We are aware that disarmament cannot be achieved overnight, but the problems can be solved if we have the will to try. The transitional stages are the most difficult and dangerous; the removal of troops from foreign soil, the demilitarisation of our societies, the training in nonviolent defence.
Let us go home now and start the great race for disarmament which all sane people are now demanding. Delegates! The United Nations Organization awarded first prize this year to the symbol of the broken rifle. This has been the symbol of the WRI since its inception 60 years ago. We have truly broken ours and refuse to support their further use or manufacture. Will you, too, turn that symbol into fact and, along with us -- SCRAP THE LOT!
We share a miracle
This was Myrtle Solomon's opening address to the WRI Triennial -- 'Resistance and reconstruction: the power of nonviolence' -- at Swaraj Ashram, Vedchhi, Gujarat, India, 31 December 1985. It was her last public speech as chair of WRI. It was a triumph all round, and particularly poignant because of the awareness that ehse had undergone severe surgery for cancer not longer before.
It is my honour to speak to you on the international perspective of our work and our dreams, which have become a way of living for thousands of war resisters throughout the world. We are united by a common purpose, not only to eradicate the crime of war and preparations for it, but also to seek out the numerous causes of war, violence and injustice.
We come here to this beautiful setting in Vedchhi from 32 different countries with many different problems in our homelands, different historical backgrounds and cultures. For all this it is a miracle how many problems and solutions we share.
We strive to be both peacemakers and peace builders where there is conflict or threat of conflict. This is an essential ingredient of the nonviolent society we all seek. This is revolution. Whether our plans for the future are banned, repressed, tolerated, or ignored by governments, nowhere are we accepted by the political leaders of our countries. Thus we are members of a revolution in its truest sense.
The WRI has members here from five continents. But from within those continents there are many absentees due to the power of dictatorship, militarism and oppression. Even oppression by the bureaucracy, well known in this country, is a form of taking power away from the people. I am thinking of the peacemakers from Eastern Europe who were refused permission to leave their countries, in particular a new peace group in Hungary, the 4-6-0, and friends in the Polish Freedom and Peace Group. We have received a message of goodwill to this conference from East German pacifists [who cannot attend].
It is not only the Soviet Union's empire that oppresses objectors to war and militarism. There are women and men so oppressed in many countries, and I will emphasise South Africa and Israel. It is our joy that after considerable difficulty, we have here with us South African people, white and black. Our friends in Israel working for the rights of Palestinians, Friends of Palestinian Arabs, cannot get visas to reach this conference. It is intolerable that there is power to stop a gathering of builders of peace. Indeed the world and each country on the globe belongs to all people and is not the property of an elite few. Nor has anyone the right to force people and conscript them to learn to kill. In the United States of America and Western Europe, thousands of men and women have refused this duty and suffer the penalty for their refusal. What then draws us together here in Vedchhi to 'Resist and Reconstruct?'
Our backgrounds range widely. There is, for example. the nonviolent response to excessive oppression in Central and Latin America and the Pacific, where poverty, famine and misery dominate the lives and cause the premature death of millions of children, women, and men. The responsibility for this crime against humanity lies heavily on the western nations of the northern hemisphere. Their economic and military exploitation, their greed and their materialistic way of life, like a disease, is all too easy to catch.
In the West our members give opposition to the source and development of militarism, to the acute danger of a war, and to the exploitation of land, sea, water and air which, for totally unnecessary and irrelevant reasons, could result in the extermination of life on earth. Those of us who work at the grass roots in our villages and urban areas must never forget this as we struggle for justice in the community. We cannot emphasise enough the precarious risks taken by the two so-called superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, and their satellites who have cast this terrible threat on our world.
They are taking terrible risks through this political and economic exploitation and through the build-up of armaments which, at best, will never be used and, at worst, will finish us. Moreover, the build-up of these armaments, not to speak of the actual use of them, in so many of the regions of our world, threatens a level of destruction never yet known to the human race. This evil domination over the lives of millions has resulted in positive, constructive resistance. We, as an international collection of people, know that there are thousands if not millions of others dedicated to resist and to reconstruct from the grass roots up -- from the unit of one to infinity. We are here to respect the individual's right not only to live but also to be able to contribute with dignity to the welfare of his or her fellow human beings. It is our right to share and help each other to learn to live as well as to resist and protest as we have had to do this last century.
I think it is possible that we in the West know more about the thinking and work of the peace builders in India than those in India know about our dedication. Some of us come from imperialistic backgrounds that you in India experienced personally. But we remember and have learned form Mahatma Gandhi and still look to India to remain nonaligned and to take a leading role to bring sanity back to the world.
This cannot be achieved if you allow your government to meet threats to your security, internal or external, in the same way as we have done. We urge you urgently not to trust the build-up of nuclear power, nor be tempted to have a nuclear bomb, no matter from where the threat comes. This is what we also strive to achieve at home.
No government can strive for peace and disarmament at the same time as it rearms itself. India is one of the Five Continents Peace Initiative. Here at our conference we plan to form the Five Continents Grass Roots Initiative for Peace.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to something I have learned at the ashram. You must visit the exhibition. There you will see an arch over one of the entrances. It is, I am told, an auspicious sign, used in India to pay respect to an auspicious occasion or person. It is called the toran.
But there is something else there -- something not seen even throughout India as an 'auspicious sign'. It is special to this place. Haku Shah, the designer, has placed there three brooms -- a symbol here of the lowest and most humble menial task in India. In Norway, there is a picture of a woman brushing up unneeded, undesirable 'dirt', sweeping up armaments and soldiers to dispose of. This became a popular symbol. I understand that the way this broom is made (they produced a sample), it is supposed to represent a woman, since here in India they are associated with the sweeping. Perhaps, at last, I have found an area where we are in advance of you. We women in the West make sure our men share in the sweeping! They cannot have it both ways: the responsibility of power while escaping the responsibility of cleaning up the mess they have made.
But, more seriously, the meaning of those brooms is clear: the lives of all should be respected and protected, for each of us gives equally to society.
A call for renewed dedication
This speech was delivered to the WRI triennial conference in Perugia, July 1982
Of course all war resisters in their dream moments are waiting for that dazzling flash of knowledge of how to break through the seemingly impregnable wall of militarism and move towards their own particular conception of the new nonviolent society; but making history is a slower process. There are many roads to peace, to disarmament with or without peace, to the development of a less violent society. Moreover, how can a movement show signs of creative inspiration when it spends most of its working hours in protest against prevailing politics, bogged down in all forms of disarmament programmes and resistance to militarism?
While WRI members believe it necessary to give priority to resistance and protest, and there are plenty of reasons for this, they are unlikely to produce a new approach, a new solution, until a measure of response and success has been found. If members are still discussing the same issues as they may have done 10 or 20 years ago, it is because these challenges still exist, indeed, have worsened. Given that background, I believe much progress has been made throughout the WRI membership over the years, in peace education, protest, civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance; in nonviolence training and research; in discussion and upholding its nonaligned position; in its support of COs and war resisters. I believe that this rich inheritance still permeates a Triennial gathering.
The WRI is an international organisation composed in its thousands of members that give priority to their national projects. Most of us believe that nationalism, frontiers and all that leads to separation are seed-causes of war and the WRI has to break down these frontiers. Their Triennial shows this can be done; if any other gathering of diplomats, politicians and national leaders could show a tenth of the unanimity represented at the Triennial, the world would be a better place to live.
It is often said in political circles, 'Let us look at the areas on which we agree rather than disagree'. In the WRI, the areas of agreement are so vital to the world's future that they should not be dismissed as mundane or 'nothing new'. In comparison to other international gatherings or political party 'annuals', they remain revolutionary and there is encouraging solidarity and even similarity of approach for the right reasons. Members and friends of the WRI and IFoR are still years ahead of those whose thinking they seek to change, but because their example has not changed the world overnight is no cause for false modesty or despondency. It is cause for renewed dedication and commitment. And this is what the Triennial is all about.
Disarmament Train: Brussels-Warsaw 1979
The Disarmament Train: Brussels-Warsaw 1979 was an ambitious attempt at popular action from below in the days when Western peace movements had few contacts in Eastern Europe. This report was written at the request of the Internationale der Kriegsdienstgegner e.V Berlin (IdK) for their archives. The original handwritten version is now deposited in these archives.
This project could be divided into two parts: the period of negotiation and the period of protest. The third stage was the actual event, the journey across Europe to West Berlin and the final arrival of some of the participants in Warsaw.
The period of negotiation lasted many months and was painfully slow. The period of protest was rapid, often foolish, and at times inspired.
The period of negotiation included the work on the preliminary plans and agreement on the platform for disarmament. Three main points: disarmament (unqualified), the abolition of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, reconversion in industry. A seemingly straightforward approach; the idea was to cross West Europe in a train bearing this message, speaking to and with as many people as possible and demonstrating against military bases en route. It was intended to carry the same message into the DDR and on to Poland: from the NATO Headquarters to the symbolic centre of the Warsaw Pact countries.
A letter was written to the Polish Peace Committee in September 1978 introducing the project and asking for their cooperation and assistance when the western disarmers would reach Warsaw. That was when the practical plans and the platform were agreed and arrangements to hire a train were started. The Coordinating Committee set a target for some 400 to 500 participants coming from at least all NATO countries. They appointed an international coordinator, Reinoud Doeschot, who worked voluntarily and valiantly from Brussels; they set up national coordinating committees in various countries (their job was to recruit the participants); they appointed small subcommittees with specific responsibilities such as publicity, propaganda, practicalities.
They asked certain organisations and personalities to sponsor the project, and the War Resisters International was one of the organisations that accepted. The position of 'sponsor', however, carried little weight in decision-making; in fact it was made clear early on that no single organisation was to be allowed to 'throw its weight about' and the work was to be totally decentralised with shared responsibilities and individual initiative welcome as long as it was not in the name of any organisation. This policy of course did not prevent the active people from using the organisation's address and facilities (office equipment etc).
The overall plan was good, although, in fact, it never worked. In the first months the WRI was the only organisation involved and the national coordination moved very slowly with most of the enthusiasm coming from France. Individuals worked hard, but the main reason why the plans failed to move forward was the very long period of no reply from the PPC. Months of silence were endured, interrupted only by repeated letters, telegrams and telephone calls from Brussels to Warsaw -- to which there was no reply. This silent form of negation certainly thwarted the preliminary plans and put off a lot of potential participants; it was also extremely frustrating and this of course may have been the purpose ('if we delay long enough, they'll abandon their crazy plan'). It was also during that time that the International Coordinating Committee improved the perspective of their platform as far as we were concerned and added the word 'unilateral' to 'disarmament' on all their circulars. Whether this was done because everyone on the Internatonal Coordinating Committee was in favour of unilateralism or whether it was done to provoke those who were not, I do not know; but at that time the decision certainly dissuaded potential support from many members of left-to-middle-wing organ isations -- those in favour of disarmament by multilateral agreement. The original idea, way back in September 1978, had been to use the single word 'disarmament' and to allow the different speakers en route to express their own opinions on 'ways and means'.
One day in January 1979, Mr Tyluk, the international secretary of the Polish Peace Committee, was in Brussels for a conference. Although the WRI has no secret agents, there was a 'leak' and, before the unfortunate man knew what was happening, an appointment was made to meet him. This time he really could not evade our approach or make any excuses and four of us met him in a bar where we held a long and frank discussion on all the political and practical issues involved. Remember, this was the first response received after over four months of silence.
In spite of this, Tyluk was well informed and had in fact studied the terms of our platform and the nature of the campaign. We left that meeting fairly hopeful that the PPC would agree to welcome us -- a fifty-fifty chance.
He expressed three main objections at that time:
- the PPC would find it difficult to act as hosts to 400 people at that time of the year (late July-August) and there was no way of our coming unless they were able to organise our journey through Poland. I took this remark at face value but others interpreted it as a disguised political objection to the whole project.
- He was adamant in his objection to the clause on unilateral disarmament, an action he considered both dangerous in itself and quite unacceptable for East Europeans and particularly the Polish people who had suffered intolerably during the war of 1939-45. He reminded us that in the Warsaw Pact agreements, it was stated that if the West disarmed, its members would follow suit.
- He was sceptical about our ability to control the behaviour of the participants and their political objectives; in other words, he could just about tolerate 'pacifist idealism' but feared infiltration from right-wing extremists.
On our part, we agreed to consider a change of date although the one selected had been chosen to fit in with vacations and the WRI Triennial Conference in Denmark. On the disarmament issue we remained adamant; we respected his analysis of a disarmament programme and, indeed, pointed out that it was a view shared by most governments in the West, but one we did not support. We emphasised our desire to be allowed to express our particular case for unilateral dis armament across Europe; others could put their programme for multilateral, phased or limited disarmament. We wanted all people to hear our political policy and to realise that we were involved in a very real struggle 'at home' and that many of our members had personally suffered in this struggle by prison sentences and job discrimination.
The case for unilateral disarmament was well known and documented by western pacifists but was virtually unknown in East Europe; we considered we had the right to express these views (and quoted the Helsinki agreements) just as they, the Polish people, had the right to reject them; but it was a discussion we wished to open. As to his 'security' doubts, our reply was that we also had no desire to harbour political infiltrators nor to suffer any form of political exploitation from the press. Every participant was to be fully committed to nonviolence and was to be briefed on the main objectives, and they would have to accept the terms of a 'Code of Behaviour' before taking part in the action.
It was finally left that Tyluk report back to the PPC and a date was fixed for a final decision. The delays started again. Finally a message came through which outlined the costs of the Polish part of the journey. These were so high that they implied a rejection to the whole plan. It was a subtle way of saying no without getting into political objections and the adverse publicity which could follow.
Reinoud Doeschot's reaction to this was to descend on Warsaw unannounced and visit the PPC offices, an admirable unilateral action! The Secretariat received him with astonishment but nevertheless distinct practical advances were made which included modifications on the costs of a three-day visit. It now looked as though the project was both feasible and acceptable to the PPC.
We shall never be certain whether the PPC had to give in to a higher authority or whether they had never taken the project seriously; but whatever the reason, on April 4th a letter was written which categorically rejected the Train for Disarmament on the grounds previously discussed. Instead, they invited us to hold a small conference or seminar with them at a later date, believing this form of communication to be more constructive.
Their committee had clearly underestimated the results of their decision and the reactions it would bring from members of the International Coordinating Committee. In fact, the refusal galvanised the International Coordinating Committee members into action, and the apathy and lethargy that had been prevalent vanished overnight. The whole shape of the project changed into a protest pressure campaign with increasing intensity up until the hour of departure from Brussels on August 3rd. It was a bold step and at times inspired and chaotic throughout. But it worked. It was also totally 'undemocratic' from the point of view of the sponsoring organisations who were never consulted in advance of the actions undertaken.
These changes in programme were largely due to the Partito Radicale, flushed with success after the Italian elections, taking over the international organisation. From that moment national movements either did what they were told to do or were lost: a situation which would have been unacceptable some five months previous.
There were two prongs to their method and collectively they posed problems. We were urged to arrange actions which were likely to antagonise or embarrass the Polish authorities at the same time as we were asked to collect signatures from personalities asking the PPC to reconsider their decision. That is to say, orthodox diplomatic approaches were undertaken by deputations sent to Warsaw and various interviews with ambassadors in European cities, petitions collected, while others were staging direct actions and publicity stunts and press conferences liable to antagonise our friends in Warsaw.
Jean Fabre (Secretary of Partito Radicale) gambled and both won and lost the decision. He quite rightly took the line that the way to dis armament can only be a formidable struggle but that the failure of all governments to make radical changes of policy and the acute urgency of the situation was paramount. The time for traditional diplomacy or democratic behaviour was over. His policy was successful because, through determined effort, some of the participants reached Warsaw. But it failed on the level of persuasion and the PPC remained adamant in their refusal to accept the 'visitors' officially.
It is worrying that so many militant peace activists only work with passion and perseverance under adversity; that we wait for 'someone' to say NO before we are prepared to cry out YES with real vigour. We are conditioned to opposition and partially lost without it. So it was, that, while there seemed a chance that the PPC would say yes, few people were prepared to organise the Disarmament Train, but as soon as the no came through, the campaign lifted and spread with enthusiasm and skill, and organisational changes were rapidly made: the platform policy was extended without consultation to include antinuclear power and the issue of world hunger related to armament expenditure; the 'Code of Behaviour' forgotten (in spite of which there have been no complaints on that aspect) which meant that there was a lot of last minute recruiting to 'fill the buses'. This was risky, open to abuse and contrary to all previous agreement, but nevertheless it paid off and was not abused and brought in a lot of support from activists in organisations that do not officially support unilateral disarmament.
I think it fair judgement to write that the project would never have taken place without the dynamic leadership of the Partito Radicale and the autocratic behaviour of its travelling ambassadors who visited Belgium, Germany and France during July, virtually forcing support and actions which demanded individual commitment (direct actions, civil disobedience, fasts) and which drew publicity and reactions from the media. Articles, good and less good, were printed and the press conferences well attended. Without doubt this somewhat ruthless behaviour gained for the Partito both admiration and antagonism -- but that also brought the publicity they rate so highly.
I think it is fair judgement to concede that the unusual 'honour' of being received at the NATO Headquarters by Mr Hechler (the joint general secretary of political affairs) was due to the fact that 'Warsaw' had refused to meet the disarmers. (I discount the Polish invitation to receive a small deputation instead of all the participants). Similarly, the ultimate success in Warsaw of being allowed to distribute leaflets and display banners for over two hours (instead of the traditional two seconds or two minutes!) was due not only to the dedication of the individuals concerned but also to the unexpected aggressive reception from the West Berlin authorities.
Whether all these activities will ultimately have improved or wrecked future relationships with the Polish authorities or even the Polish people is not for me to judge.
On principle I would submit that international actions should not be organised in this way; risks for peace have to be taken but it is not in the spirit of nonviolence to create opposition in order to overcome opposition. It would have been less exciting but in some ways more challenging to have managed to persuade the PPC to accept the original plans or to have planned a direct action from the outset involving civil disobedience West and East.
I was asked to write a critical survey of this project and its organisation and I have done so -- but, finally, I must end with the word 'Congratulations'.
Both of these interviews with Myrtle Solomon are part of oral histories, one on cassettes and one in a book. They are shortened for purposes of this book.
In the aftermath of war ...
There is hesitancy: ers and pauses, some of them long. There are deep sighs, stumbling over the choice of words, abrupt changes of direction and the occasional dry cough of the inveterate smoker. This is the disadvantage of the direct unrehearsed interview for oral history. But the advantage is the vivid feeling of Myrtle's presence through her voice, and the richness of learning more about the inspiration and experiences which later inspired others.
Acknowledgement: We are grateful to the Department of Sound Records, Imperial War Museum, for permission to use these extracts from a much longer interview in its archives: The Anti-War movement, 1935-1945.
Margaret A. Brooks: In the mid to late thirties what had you heard about the peace movement? I'm thinking of the debates at Oxford, the peace ballot, Dick Sheppard, things like that?
Myrtle Solomon: Absolutely nothing. Whether it was because I was too interested in my own life, or whether we were just immature children, I don't know, but absolutely nothing. I had heard of Dick Sheppard because my parents used to listen to his weekly -- was it weekly -- sermon which was slightly strange for a Jewish household, but --
MAB: On the radio, you mean?
MS: Radio, yes. And I'm quite sure I didn't listen, I've no recollection. I'd never heard of a peace movement. But I wouldn't want anybody to think that it was a warlike family; on the contrary, it wasn't. I think in those days Jewish families of the sort of type that I was brought up in were basically very very peaceful, a peacemaking people, and the only talk I ever heard was how you prevented war, not how you went to war. And I never remember hearing any -- and in spite of the anguish that was going on over there that it was time Britain started, that Britain should declare war, or something, I never heard anything like that at all. And my mother told me war was the most terrible thing that could happen to people. But I never heard of any organised peace movement.
I heard a little bit of how conscientious objectors had been treated in the First World War, and if that impinged on my mind at all it was that people had been absolutely horrible to them, and that that was not the right way to behave. But nevertheless my father had been a good soldier in the cavalry and so it wasn't a pacifist family.
MAB: Presumably you felt it wasn't the right way to behave just because you shouldn't behave that way to anyone, rather than because they were pacifists?
MS: I'm not sure, I don't think -- I think there was a respect for them.
MAB: Was there a slight bud of peace starting to bloom?
MS: Yes, I think so, yes. Certainly I was told that when the white feathers and some pretty unpleasant things were done to conscientious objectors during the 1918 war that opinions had to be respected and that these people had in their own way been very brave, I do remember being told that. But whether it was just because one really shouldn't persecute anybody, a minority or not, I'm not sure, but somewhere along the line respect had been put into my head for them, yes.
MAB: Was this through your parents?
MS: Yes, yes.
MAB: What did your mother think of your brother's, slightly exaggerated it seems, patriotism?
MS: Well, that was my brother. He was a very flamboyant character and born in the wrong age. I think he should have been an Elizabethan pirate or something like that. And he was also at the time in the theatre world. Before 1937 he had been to Cambridge and so on and then gone into the theatre world. I think -- well, she told us that when he'd been a little boy in a pram -- I think he was born in 1914 or 1915 -- that she would maim him some way rather than let him go to war. She hadn't been married very long when the 1914 war started. And she would injure him in some way so that he would not be able to go. And all I can say is that when the time came she didn't show any flag waving pride but she knew perfectly well that she couldn't possibly stop him going, and she didn't try to stop any of us doing what we thought we had to do, which for the eldest three of us was to try and get into it as quickly as possible. Well, war was still considered more of a man's thing than a woman's thing and Martin, having somehow got himself into the Naval Reserve in 1937, was of course -- you know it was quite obvious that he would be called up, which he was temporarily in 1938. And he seemed to be raring to go and well, as I say, she didn't flag wave but there was no obstruction of any sort.
Of course they were the only people in the house who knew what we were really in for. We were all wanting to get in to some form of uniform, as it were, and they neither encouraged nor discouraged, but I think they expected us to go before we were called up. I may be just saying that now but I have a sort of feeling that in our family you weren't the sort of people who would wait till you were called up; you would go before. We were very English I suppose -- I mean well-to-do English -- had all the advantages, best education, good artistic cultural background. My parents had a house in the country, we had ponies, we had boats, we'd had a very good childhood. And my impression is that I felt that Britain was the finest country in the world. Whether that's really how I felt I don't know.
MAB: What can you remember about the actual outbreak of war itself?
MS: I can remember very vividly my mother coming across the lawn -- and we were a family who had been brought up not to show emotions as far as I can gather -- and she came across the lawn and it was in the country, and she had her hand on her forehead, which looked almost like a theatrical gesture but which couldn't possibly have been because it just wasn't in her nature, and she said, 'War has been declared'. And I burst into laughter, because I always had this embarrassing characteristic if someone had to tell me somebody was dead I always laughed. And I was always terrified of laughing, and therefore terrified that someone should die simply because I was terrified of laughing. And exactly the same thing happened so evidently I did at least know that people were going to die.
And then there's a sort of gap, you know; I'm not quite sure because I suppose one thought instantly you would be at war where of course we weren't. And the changes in daily life weren't perhaps quite as dramatic as I had imagined they would be. But we went straight up to London to see what was happening and found my brother there chomping at the bit because he had not been called up, whereas of course he'd been called up in 1938 for the false alarm. But for some reason or other he wasn't called up and he spent quite some weeks being extremely angry and there were terrible quarrels in the family because of his anger. And my first few weeks of the war was a disturbance in the family because we didn't appear to be wanted by anyone in order to fight. Except my father who also had apparently been on the military reserve, which none of us knew.
I suppose my mother knew but -- He'd finished the First World War as a major and was apparently just called straight back and he'd been on the reserve list all that time. And he was a man in his fifties then and he went straight into uniform, and to Southampton, which was near where the country house was, and was put into something I think was called Movement Control, or some such word, where he remained. I don't mean he remained in Southampton, he didn't, he went all over the place, but he remained in that throughout the war and we didn't see him very often.
I signed on for ambulance work which I'm very glad never materialised because of -- I signed on for that because I was already quite a competent driver and therefore thought that would be a suitable thing but I'm thankful really that I was never called up because I was not very good on sick people, and I wasn't the first-aidy type, shall I say. So I think probably it was a bad choice in my mind but I didn't know what else women would be doing.
MAB: This was in Southampton?
MS: Yes, and I think the bureaucracy side was in such appalling mess my name got lost and I just never got called up yet for it.
MAB: Once the war had officially begun did you find it disappointing? I mean no invasions the next day sort of thing?
MS: Yes, yes, I think so. Definitely, it wasn't what I'd imagined was going to happen. Well, I don't know because had I imagined anything? But I think I assumed that it would be very much more dramatic quickly, whereas the things that the war seemed to illustrate at first were things like ration cards, registering, and later on the clothing coupons, and so on. People telling you there wouldn't be enough food, when there very clearly was ample food. And I don't think restrictions on petrol happened in the very beginning, but perhaps I'm quite wrong on that. But life was not greatly changed except you didn't go on doing what you had been doing, I mean, unless you were at school. The Theatre Studio closed down immediately, Michel St Denis, who was our director, he was a Frenchman, he went straight back to France and joined up. And later, after France had been invaded, he escaped back to Britain and he was a 'Monsieur Du Chene' who did broadcasts to the French people throughout the war.
MAB: How much did you fear invasion at that time, the time of the fall of France?
MS: Well, only through what other people were preparing. By that time there was a good deal of British joking going on: 'if they come here we'll do this and that', and people were making the most comic preparations. My mother, for example, reckoned that she'd be able to keep them off with a huge log fork -- a fork for sort of stirring logs, that we had at the open fire, and it was a most vicious looking instrument it's perfectly true. You made jokes of it: there was a very patriotic woman in the village who never went about in her car -- or I think perhaps she was also driving an ambulance -- without a row of pepper pots on the front. She thought she could blind the Germans when they arrived. We were told that the Germans might arrive dressed up as nuns, so every poor nun in the country went about being observed and looked at in a suspicious way. I remember myself I went on some walking holiday for a while, in Cornwall I think it was, just for a sort of long weekend and I had a haversack on, and I thought everybody was looking at me and thinking I had parachuted in and was -- so you were a bit twitchy but more in a humorous way.
And the preparations that were made by the nation you really didn't think would keep anybody away. I mean a bit of barbed wire on a beach, or the erection of what appeared to be sort of small concrete pyramids each side of a lane, which were called antitank, and you just couldn't see how they could stop anything at all. It's a bit like what today we'd call 'Dad's Army' joking, and there was a lot of joking going on about it, very definitely.
But on the more serious side for my family, I remember my parents saying would I take our two younger sisters to Australia, so they obviously thought it really was going to happen and that the older ones should stay and help defend Britain but maybe they should make an attempt to save the lives of the two youngest. And I went so berserk -- and I was like the middle one in age and I would therefore have had to have taken them and acted mother. We did have some relatives in Australia, that's why they chose that. And I was terribly upset, and I think they were so reluctant to do it that between the two things it was never broached again. But quite clearly they must have talked about it at length and made a decision that that should happen but that I was not to be forced, and so it never happened.
MAB: With both the bombs on your house, and with the sights you must have seen in London when you were working with the WVS, what did that make you think about the war, about Germany?
MS: I think that much later on in the war, when I realised the quantities of material that we were dropping on Germany -- and we were told that it was very much more than what they'd dropped on us -- I thought, 'How terrifying it must be', but when they were dropping them on us it was a survival thing all the time. And this terrible thing in the morning of being relieved that you were alive, and this ghastly nagging guilt that you knew that a lot of other people weren't. And I think that that lived with you throughout it, that every day you were alive, and you felt good to be alive, this awful sense of guilt that other people weren't, and shouldn't really it have been you. Well, I mean that might be a bit personal but I would think a lot of --
Yes, at that time I don't think we were, as it were, managing to kill very many Germans. At that time, we were taking it more. I never saw a German plane brought down in the sky though I saw dog fights, as I think we called them. I never saw that situation, any plane I think coming down over London. I saw air raid victims but I wasn't, as it were, in the front line. I mean the mobile canteen came in after the ambulances, so to speak, so I didn't see terrible things. But my shift would have been early in the morning. I think I had to get there about seven, or six in the morning, I can't quite remember, and so it wasn't necessarily daylight. And I certainly remember incredibly tired salvage -- the people who were digging people out, officially I mean. And I saw their faces, their very shocked faces, which I admit probably looked more frightening because of the incredible dust after a bomb there is, and so looked almost like corpses themselves. I remember one chap coming up for a cup of tea who had gone, I suppose, a bit round the bend into shock. He was not a victim. He had been trying to get people out -- and he was swinging someone's arm, I mean just an arm, and he was sort of quietly taken away. But I didn't really see, except for that, any great number of terrible things. But I mean it was terrible enough because you saw the collapsed buildings and the chances were that there were people still underneath it who might well be alive. But in fact what one was doing was dishing out tea and cake and making sort of Cockney jokes with the people who were doing all the hard work. We were not allowed out to do that, I mean each person -- I suppose it was the first time I learned how to be obedient as well. I mean you did what you were told and you saw the sense in it, and there was no point you going to pull away bricks because there were much better people doing that. And there was a point that you saw they had as much tea as they wanted and became a bit regimented through that.
MAB: What was people's reaction to news of either German defeats or British victories?
MS: I think people didn't want to talk about what had really happened in order to get, say, that victory. They didn't want to talk about how many of their own people had been killed, and they didn't really seem to want to talk about how many Germans had been killed either in order to get it. But you seemed to live on those arrows in newspapers. There were always, pincer was the word, and you could see these arrows, and either you were being scrunched in and defeated or you were, like some great garden shears, pincering them out of existence. And it was quite difficult to relate it to the true human thing that was going on. Everything was these arrows meeting each other, and it's very difficult to describe. But I suppose -- I mean I think we know how we were sheltered a good deal from bad news, you know if things were going badly for the British, but you lived on those arrows, you knew parts of Europe that you hadn't known before on arrows moving forward or backward.
When you heard of some troops, or parachutists, in a very tight position there was great concern, if there was something rather dramatic happening like that there was great concern. There was impatience for the second front, there began to be. I think my clearest memory of how it was to live through the thing was the day to day business. Even when we stopped being raided and therefore weren't every day frightened, and so on, you seemed to be living from day to day. For years and years and years you made no plans beyond very domestic things or something to do with work, and there was a complete sense of temporariness, you didn't consciously think you were going to die but that this nightmare would never come to an end, and it was not a normal life at all. And that was very much for me who had assumed that I was going to have a good life, you know an interesting, good life, and I don't think that was the same for other people in the factory whose lives were not inconvenienced by the war -- I think that would be the fairest way of putting it.
MAB: What were you actually doing at NCR, your daily work?
MS: I don't really know what parts were being made there. Certainly they were smaller things, they were parts of something else. We had been trained to work from blueprints. We varied of course; we couldn't make our own tools, at any rate not at the beginning of the war, we didn't know how to. There was a lot of mass production jobs there, a thousand or more of something being made every night, and I don't know what they were. But when I first went in I was put on to bullet casts, and that was the most hardened steel I suppose that can exist. It was just a sort of block tube and over a process, a very, very long process -- I mean you were lucky if you did two a night -- it was hollowed out in the shape of a bullet-head, as you and I would know it, the pointed sort of pencil shaped object, and it had to be quite unbelievably smooth inside, I mean a highly polished condition that I can't really describe. So it was a very slow work, it was in a machine speeding round very fast and you were holding something and just sort of rubbing it. And of course it had to be absolutely perfect because that was going to make thousands, I suppose, of bullets. I said cast, I think the word is die, a bullet die, I think that's the right word.
MAB: To what extent doing work like that does one just get on with the job, or is one constantly aware that this is meant to kill somebody, or save somebody's life, or end the war, or whatever?
MS: Well, there the idelolgy did come in to it. I'm absolutely certain that for more than 90 per cent of the people there it was just a question of keeping yourself going throughout a very long shift, doing as many as you could, partly for money but also partly for a sort of pride of achievement, but absolutely unrelated to the war. But for me every little pinhead, as it were, was something to do with the war. I never forgot that side of it because I was so, I suppose, conscious that I wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for the war, and that I had chosen to go there and wanted to be there. And I think I was quite proud of being there. I really thought I was doing something and that other friends that I knew were not doing as much as I was doing. The mere fact of working for 12 hours for someone who'd never worked before was sort of dramatic. And none of the women had learned how to take naps, I mean, which we gathered men had been doing for years -- knowing how to cheat time, knowing how to prolong a tea break, and so on. Women were not like that. They were terrific workers but I really don't think it was greatly associated with the war. They just didn't like to be idle -- it's a different temperament.
We had music on all the time which I found very dramatic and liked -- which today I would hate. And you learned to speak 'under the noise'. Don't ask me what that meant but it's true. You were told not to shout above the noise and you did; you learned somehow to speak under it so you could speak quite quietly ...
MAB: Did you have any sense of feeling that you were getting the Germans by what you were doing or, I mean, the enemy?
MS: If it's true that one forgets, you know, things one doesn't want to remember, I don't know, but myself can only remember wanting to rescue the countries that had been invaded, and France was very much in my mind ... But I remember hearing my father say, towards the end, that if we get into Germany, what we've got to do is to split it up into tiny sort of federal states, never let it be one country again. And I remember not being very interested in Germany. I only wanted to rescue, as it were, the Dutch, and the Scandanavians, and the French, and thought I was doing something towards that. I don't remember sort of wanting to beat the Germans, though with common sense I must have realised we would have to but --
MAB: I was going to say, were you rescuing the Germans themselves?
MS: No. I would like to be able to say yes to that. No, no, I don't remember that. I just don't remember waking up in the morning as some people did and said 'I hope we smash them to bits', and I don't think I did but I certainly wanted the thing to end. I remember feeling more and more weary.
I also remember in London I think we all became more frightened, and fear I think is catching. And the doodlebugs were pretty frightening, but the V2s were terrifying. And I don't know whether we were tired by then, or what it was, but a lot of people would admit to that, that we were much more scared then than when the bombs were raining down on us during the blitz. I think we were tired. I was only longing for it to end by then.
MAB: Not so much perhaps from any antiwar point of view but because of the toll on yourself and on society in general?
MS: Yes. No, I hadn't become antiwar then. I did imagine that things would be marvellously different after the war, and have suffered from disappointment ever since that they weren't so different. But I certainly -- I mean I wasn't thinking about this daily. It would be wrong to even suggest it, but I certainly thought that we were rescuing people in Germany who'd been put into the camps, as well as our own prisoners. I was still not sufficiently advanced politically to think of any political implications of having been allied with the Russians and what they might want to do afterwards, or my father's theory as to what should be done to Germany. I began to get uneasy when we -- it's terrible; I can't remember the phrase. I mean we could probably have got the Germans to give in earlier and -- what was the phrase -- and we said no, we've got to go in the whole -- it's got to be complete surrender. And I did begin to wonder why that was necessary and why we couldn't have stopped a bit earlier.
Then of course the atom bomb came. I was still at the factory then and my first knowledge of that was I'd never seen such big headlines in a paper before. The actual type set was the biggest thing I've ever seen, and I hadn't the faintest idea what it meant, not at all. I just thought it was another rather nasty bomb. I simply was not conscious that we'd turned a whole page in history, in warfare, and it meant nothing to me. That whole day I'd no sense of horror, or drama, anything like that at all, and I can't believe I was the only one.
Towards the end of the war when such enormous efforts were being put in by the Allies which involved heavy bombing, shelling, and so on, of the people you were going to save, and not necessarily the German enemy at all, a sense of uneasiness came into the work, and the feelings towards the work. Not that one could see any other way of doing it, invading without shattering the countryside and the people there. And it's only in a desperate totally futile way; during those last months after D-Day, for all I know, nothing we made was ever used, but still -- I mean we never knew how long it took to reach the front, so to speak, from leaving the factory, but anyhow I used to scratch messages on objects that I was making, which couldn't possibly have been seen by anyone, I'm sure, saying 'Good Luck', and 'We're coming', and 'See you soon', and things like that.
MAB: Bilingual messages?
MS: Yes, in French, or just 'Good Luck' in English, and things like that. But it was an alarming experience realising what you were doing to the people who you were supposed to be saving. And I did rather wonder how they were reacting, the ordinary people. Were they willing to be bombed in order to be saved , and so on.
MAB: How much did you know about the extent of the Allied bombing?
MS: I think if I'd been a little more sensible and read a little more of the newspapers I should have realised that it was really heavy and bigger that what we'd received in the past. But I'm not sure that I was as conscious that it was as bad as it was until I met people afterwards who'd been there and explained. The saturation bombing is talked of in pacifist circles that they were very conscious of it at the time, so we must have been told, but I don't think I quite realised that it really was pretty fierce what we were doing. There was this terrible selfish thing, 'Oh, for heaven's sake; can't we get it over now', great desire that it should end as quickly as possible.
I remember D-Day very vividly. A lot of the troops and preparations had taken place near my parent's country house in Beaulieu in the New Forest. And we were still able -- if you ever got any free time, we were still allowed to move about. It was difficult. I mean you didn't go down there just quite easily; you had to have a permit, as it were, of residence, which showed you lived there, and this was because they were preparing. A little bit of D-Day was being prepared in the woods there and on the river, for example on Beaulieu River there were a lot of false barges which apparently were supposed to fool the Germans that something was happening from there -- which it wasn't. And they were so light that they skidded across the river so I don't see how the Germans could have been fooled by that. But that was the sort of thing going on. And you weren't really supposed to know but you knew there was something brewing up. But it took so long, months and months and months, and you began to think it was never going to happen, and you didn't really know why. You were feeling pretty helpless, I think; couldn't see why we couldn't go. And it's only long after that you realise they were not prepared to go until they were absolutely certain that they would pull it off. And then of course, now we're told that they held it back as long as they could in order to weaken the Russians as well, but that's a -- knowledge afterwards if it's true.
So, no. My feeling was 'We're getting nearer', and the day Paris was relieved was curiously enough more exciting for me than when we were told in London, 'It's all over and you can go out in the streets and make merry'. I seem to remember quite lots that weren't making merry at all. They were howling. I don't know whether it was relief, or we didn't believe it, or what, but I'm told there wasn't the same jubilation at all as in 1918. And whether it makes a difference when you've, as it were, been more or less in the front line yourself and you're just so blinking tired that you're too tired to make merry.
MAB: Had people close to you been killed in the war?
MS: No, not a soul. It was almost impossible to believe that but it's true.
MAB: So that didn't enter into it. It was the boredom and fatigue, and so on?
MS: My closest woman friend who I'd worked with in the factory: her brother was in the Australian Air Force and he'd been killed; but I mean I didn't know him, so she definitely went through what you're indicating, you know, that he's not there to see the good thing, the end of it. But I personally knew a few people who had been wounded, but not even severely wounded, so we were very lucky that way.
MAB: And your brother and sister, I take it, came through well enough?
MS: Yes, yes. I mean, my brother had that early experience where he should have lost his life, but I mean he was never wounded. The thing that bewildered me was that when it was over, it wasn't over. I mean he didn't come back. I assumed that Martin, my brother, would be back within 12 hours, so to speak, and any other man friend I had who'd been in the forces, and of course it was months, even years for some before they were allowed back into civilian life, and I thought that was outrageous.
MAB: Did you have something else to go to?
MS: No, no, I didn't, and was a lost soul. Just didn't know what to do. I don't know if there were hundreds of us wandering about like that. But I know that the biggest thing the war did to me was I never lost that sense of camping, of not having a home. I think you've got to be a very strong character to get over a war and I certainly wasn't. And I think almost to this day I've never pulled myself together since ... I've always lived temporarily, as it were, not made plans, not disciplined myself to work out a pattern of life. And I'm not suggesting everybody was like that. I've probably got a bit of a weak streak there. But you see there was so much you couldn't do during the war, you were so restricted, and so you didn't build at all.
You weren't building your character, you weren't building your life, and I would think that only the stronger characters after the war immediately said 'but now I'm going to build my life, or my family's life'. I don't mean necessarily selfishly, but I'm now going to build. I was quite incapable of doing that and for years, and perhaps even now, I still went about in what I can only describe as a temporary sort of existence -- I called it camping. I was restless, I didn't know what I was here for, I couldn't seem to settle at all. It was the most unsettling, soul destroying experience I think, plus the fact that in a childish way I had thought things would be different quite quickly. And they were so slow to come back to normal, and what was normal was getting quite dim in one's mind.
As the years went on you couldn't quite remember what was normal in the sense of domestic things. Freedom, you could go abroad: well, you could go abroad after the war but the money restrictions were so severe that you almost couldn't, and all sorts of things like that. And so, except for the fear of bombing, life for a very long time after the war in Britain was just the same, just as difficult.
MAB: Are these things part of what you meant when you wrote to me some time ago, 'war is a killer in more ways than the obvious'?
MS: Yes, I think so. I mean I haven't shared these thoughts with other people. I really think other people got over it quicker than I did. But it seems to me, to be a bit unkind to myself perhaps, that it was an excuse for not doing anything for the rest of my life. Because during the war you couldn't do anything except what you were told to do and I think I've sort of subconsciously perhaps used it as an excuse ever since. Although I've worked very hard it's been a sort of filler, I think, a refusal to make plans really. That's what it amounts to, a lack of ambition. It was a big chunk -- I like to pretend, but I don't think this is true in the least, that I felt cheated of what people in my class were told is 'the best time in your life, dear', between say 18 and 20, something, you see, perhaps before you were married, and reasonably well off and have all the fun. I don't really think it was that at all but I've certainly pretended that I was cheated of that period. I don't think it's true. I don't think I really thought it.
MAB: To what extent did your socialism have anything to do with pacifism or war resistance?
MS: I think it had a lot to do with it, but possibly mainly on a side issue, that I just happened to meet some pacifists in it. And I can only assume, looking back, that I was so ripe for pacifist education and understanding of pacifism that I just fell for that, not overnight, but it spoke to my condition. It was exactly what I wanted. And I was astonished to find that there were people who, throughout the war and still, were fighting against war on principle. And it was an enormous sense of relief, I think, when I found that. But, of course, that I knew about even less than socialism. But the early members of the pacifist movement that I got involved with, Dick Sheppard's movement, very largely had come from the early socialists of this country and had joined the pacifist movement because 'brother didn't fight brother'. And it was, I would think, predominantly a socialist-pacifist movement, which it certainly isn't today. I mean it's much more mixed today, but I think it was then, the pioneers of it anyhow.
So it blended very well, but, I mean, I'd barely heard of Gandhi, never heard of the word nonviolence, and so on. But in pacifist work this has helped me a great deal, I think, that I was not born one and haven't had a whole life in that environment, because I naturally under stand the people who are not pacifist very much better I think than pacifist colleagues do, and have never fallen into the trap of taking a sort of purist attitude in any way. And I think this has been a great help to me, although it's sometimes a little confusing to have to tell them that I started off life in an armaments factory.
MAB: How do people react, pacifists react?
MS: Well, quite honestly, I think they're rather shocked. Because I've become nominally quite important in the pacifist world and I've been secretary of an organisation, and I'm chairman of an international one, I think they're slightly shocked. But I always try and take the ground from under their feet before they're shocked by saying, 'Well, we're out to convert people, and here's one converted' and turn it into a bit of a joke and hope they don't suffer too much from their shock. I daresay there are people who think, 'Oh, she's trying to atone, or make good for her evil ways', but I must admit that as far as I'm concerned, that's never been in my mind at all.
MAB: Do you feel guilty about your war work?
MS: No, I don't. I don't feel at all guilty. I think that every person has to do what they believe to be right anyhow, and I certainly felt it was right to do that. And the fact that the particular work I chose was a little more directly related than perhaps driving a lorry is, I think, very academic. We were all involved really in the war and I don't think I was killing really any more directly than anybody else. But it has occurred to me, and I don't think this is an after of thinking, that I went in to the war to save certain groups of people. Not just Jewish people, I don't mean that, but people who'd been invaded. And I think I would feel guilty now if I went on thinking that that was the only way to save people, now that I have seen the damage it does and the very rare occasions when it does save anyone. So that wanton fighting, or just political fighting, I think would make me feel guilty; and if that had been, as it were, a war for a frivolous reason I think I might have felt guilty. I mean I think I would still have done it but I think I would have felt guilty afterwards. No, but nor do I imply by that that I think those who didn't take part in it should feel guilty -- the other way round. I think you've just got to do what you believe is right.
I know I didn't go into the war because I was told to do so, I know that I chose -- I would have been told later, I know that, but I didn't, that was not the reason I went in for it. And I just had to go and wanted to go and I can't pretend otherwise. And the only guilt that I can think of is that sense of guilt that you were alive and a lot of other people weren't, which I agree is a very mixed form of guilt because they're obviously pleased with my --
MAB: To what extent had you heard of conscientious objectors during the war?
MS: Very little. I've seen newspaper cuttings since which show that there was quite a bit of news about them, or about things that pacifists -- and well-known pacifists too -- were saying. Somehow or other that was all missed. I'm beginning to think I never read newspapers in those days. But I do remember a school friend who told me rather embarrassedly that her fiancáá was a conscientious objector, and I distinctly remember saying, 'How absolutely marvellous', as though she had chosen the greatest hero of all to be a fiancááe to. I can't analyse that reason, but I didn't regard myself as a rebel in those days, but whether I thought anybody who stood outside the stream was something to be admired or not I don't know. I certainly wasn't a rebel in those days. So, yes, there was this -- I never thought that that person was an escapist but I didn't hear about them. I didn't know there were thousands in the country. I just moved in a different circle and I just didn't know.
MAB: I presume you didn't hear, say, Sybil Morrison speaking?
MS: No, I never heard her speaking. I met her in '46 and then heard her speaking and she really had a sort of direct convert in me from listening when she spoke on Tower Hill. She was a very good speaker and everything made sense. But I've always said to the pacifists I've met since that I -- when they asked you how did you become a pacifist, and I always say well, I felt I'd come in, by their standards, the wrong door, because it seemed to me that I came into that way of thinking because I did not think the war I'd fought for had worked. It hadn't achieved what I, in my somewhat muddled politic state, thought it would achieve. And I remember in the early days being totally bewildered when we were being indoctrinated slowly but surely that Russia was no longer our friend, and so on, and we were helping the Germans to recover quicker than I thought we should.
MAB: You were talking about coming into pacifism because the war hadn't worked. It seems that the war was necessary for you, in a way, for you personally I mean?
MS: Yes, I can't imagine -- I mean obviously no one can prove this but I cannot imagine having become what I think one could call a passionate pacifist had I not experienced the war. So that if the me I knew at 18 had been 18 today, that person I don't think would have bothered. I don't mean I'd have been against them but I don't think I'd have bothered. And so I regard all the young people today who haven't had a first-hand knowledge of war as something of a miracle, that they are against it. I definitely, for me, needed the war experience. And I don't think news of wars, such as we get since 1945 every day, I don't think they would have made me work so hard for it. I hope, I think I would have joined something but I don't think I'd have worked like I did. But I still maintain it's not a guilt thing. I don't think I have any guilt for what I did.
MAB: What was it that the war didn't do? You said it didn't work, yet Hitler was dispensed with, disposed of?
MS: The immediate thing I learned was that the concentration camps, what had been going on there, had become devastatingly more severe during the war, and that if we'd helped such people -- Jewish people, gypsies and left-wing people -- more in the thirties, welcomed them more in the countries that were rather grudgingly giving them refuge, thousands of lives, if not millions, could have been saved. And I learned a little bit more quickly than the average British public because my father was sent over to those camps straightaway and he was a sort of between man, between the remnants left in the camps and the Allied military authorities. So we learned very, very quickly what had really happened there, and he did not spare us on this one. He told us everything, and the dates and so on. And one realised that the more we were fighting, the more they were doing that to people and that therefore we hadn't saved people. We should have saved people before. I suppose that was the lesson I learned, really, that you've got to do things before a war. You can't do it through a war, or during a war. Yes, Hitler was killed.
The thing I found so difficult to answer was how do you rescue France, and the countries that I had wanted to, without one, and of course I've never really found the answer to that one. My pacifist colleagues make answers but they really all date back to that we shouldn't have had the war anyhow. That's still a very difficult one for me.
But we hadn't been able to save people without enormous destruction, which we didn't quite realise at the time we were doing. You were just led to hope that you were really only killing your enemy, but you weren't. You were killing, destroying the lives of thousands of other people, not only death but I mean their homes and their livelihood. Then far too quickly for me, I mean, I was a pretty simple person, far too quickly to me we seemed to be moving ourselves into a position of hating another one. We couldn't seem to live without enemies, and of course that applied to Russia as well. And I found that we'd lost the East European countries and that a few statesmen were just carving up the world, and very aggressively, and making frontiers. I thought frontiers would go down. I thought there would be a good, strange, wonderful liberated life, although of course the phrase had not been used 'the war to end war' like it had in the First World War. But I assumed people would want to make such a fresh start that they'd all be angels, and sort of crusading angels. And they weren't. They were mean, they were grumbly ...
MAB: How did your family react when you became involved with war resistance?
MS: Rather marvellous family, particularly my parents, in that whatever we took up they were enthusiastic. I think the theory was that whatever you do, you do it to the best of your ability and as enthusiastically as possible, and that certainly went home. And so when it was the stage my parents -- well, particularly my father, I think -- got very involved in theatre, and so on and helped you through it. And so when it became pacifism he was the same, but he died actually just before I'd really got involved. But he never tried to thwart us in our various isms and things that all his children went into. I think he was a little more uneasy about my brother who only seemed to want to get rich through business, and I think that worried him a little bit because my father was a bit puritanical and he didn't think it would be very satisfying. But apart from that, a hundred per cent with you. But my father died too early for me to know whether we'd ever have had any arguments, but I would doubt it, I would doubt it very much. In spite of the fact he fought in two wars, I think he would have been very sympathetic.
MAB: And your mother's still alive?
MS: My mother's still alive, a very old lady now, 94. She has always been a little bit critical of it in the sense of 'Well, you're not doing very well, are you, dear?' I mean, she would have liked one to have been a bit more successful in life I think, and I suppose you could say that we're one of the failures so far, pacifists of the world.
MAB: You mean she would like you to make more money at your job, or she would like pacifism to come to the world because her daughter was doing it?
MS: It would be more likely the latter I think, but it's a profession that appears to be doomed to fail. No, not more money or anything like that, no. She would like me to be in something more rewarding, and the facts are that it's not very successful, it's not very rewarding. But it's probably all based on the fact that she would have much preferred me to have been a great actress, or a writer, or a doctor, or something like that. But I've chosen a very unpopular profession, as it were, and so she just about tolerates it.
MAB: Often it's the case that converts to something are more keen than people who are born to it. Is that true in your case?
MS: Well, I've certainly worked very hard for it, but of course I know plenty of others who have. But I think in my case it is that basically I'm a very lazy person, so whatever I do I like to do it flat out, and so pacifism has benefitted from my -- I couldn't be a moderate pacifist, I couldn't be a luke sort of warmer. But I think that would have applied to almost anything that I might have undertaken. Ideally I like to work very hard for chunks of time and than just laze. And in a way I've achieved that because, I mean, one can knock off as it were. I don't feel as depressed as some people get at our apparent lack of success now, but that may be just an age thing. I'm fairly patient in that way.
MAB: Do you believe that there can be just wars?
MS: No, I don't. That's why, I think, although I don't look back with any guilt, I feel now I can see quite clearly that it couldn't have worked, because I don't think war can work. Now that was a just war, I mean, I wouldn't deny that at all, that it was a just war, but I don't think a just war can succeed any more than an unjust one. I really no longer believe that one can really achieve anything through war. Now that's a very sweeping statement because of course there have been palliatives achieved, the sticking plaster has been achieved. Groups of people have been rescued, evil people have been got rid of, but it doesn't seem to me it lasts. It does seem to me, although I can't give all the answers yet, that it could be done in different ways. Certainly I regard it as a last resort anyhow now. How can I explain? I believe a war can be fought for a just reason, but I don't any longer think you can achieve what you set out to do through war. Partly because of what it does to people, partly because whoever you have defeated bears that burden and is likely one way or another to rise again and fight back.
I'm not quite so involved in the nuclear aspect of war for the future as many peace people are. Obviously I realise that it is infinitely more catastrophic than anything we've ever met, but I think that it's war. We've got to get rid of the method of war, because I think that if you're prepared to use a gun, you'll be prepared to use a nuclear bomb at some point -- or somebody will. So I don't get so involved in the, as it were, selective resistance as others would, though I'm very glad they're doing it. But it isn't quite for me.
MAB: Asking about just wars, I was thinking, for instance, of the number of First World War conscientious objectors who were involved with the Spanish Civil War.
MS: Well, I understand that that was a terrible time for pacifists, that period, and that many were torn. Well, I've seen so many people fight civil wars -- or read about it, not seen -- who'd been oppressed and had every reason to have done it, and I've seen sometimes when they've been successful that they set up an equally oppressive regime, just on the other side of the poitical penny but equally oppressive. And the other, the alternative, they've been beaten, it's just a question of who was the strongest. They haven't won, as in the Spanish Civil War. But I couldn't go out and preach, 'Don't do that. It's not worth it', or 'It's naughty to kill people'. I mean I couldn't possibly do that, for example, in South Africa with what is brewing up. But I do believe that if we had the courage and the patience that nonviolent resistance could achieve, at any rate in civil wars, what people who are hoping to arm themselves, and hoping to overcome through arms -- obviously a tremendous amount of inexperience. And people don't have the patience. It's natural to want a gun in your hand when you're being oppressed. And failure: when you've had a gun in your hand and are prepared to go back and try the same method again, and again and again. But with nonviolent resistance, which is so incredibly difficult, and which has had its victories here and there but is presumably doomed to have many, many failures -- and people can't take that in nonviolence and so they give up, they give up too quickly. I mean, I'm comparing that to the thousands of years people have gone back to the war method and said, 'We're going to fight this out' however often they were defeated. But those who have tried some form of nonviolent resistance today, mainly with the coloured people who've been oppressed, have given in too quickly. And people, sort of western middle class people, are apt to think that it's easy and will be successful, and of course it won't be any more than war has been.
MAB: Do you see a difference between force -- I mean, requiring somebody to do something, perhaps because he's behaving badly -- and violence?
MS: Legal force?
MAB: Yes, because nonviolent resistance is very effective in some cases, but it's a passive thing. If something's being done to you, you can respond nonviolently, but if there's some person or situation that you feel must be dealt with, presumably there are means of force that aren't violent?
MS: Yes, well intervention really, and again rescuing, and that sort of thing you mean, yes. I mean, this is what I'm trying to learn but of course I'm virtually 60 now and I suppose I won't manage it, but at least I'm in a movement that's trying to learn this experience and to find ways of not only preventing wars, which after all, there are many ways that one can try, I mean economic and all sorts of ways, but when the actual fighting has started, even if it's between a group of people in the streets or something like that, to learn how to help stop it without using violence yourself. It's really what I'm doing, or trying to do, or trying to learn, and trying to get people to experiment and learn through that. And a large number of theories in peace research and so on are being worked on. I'm still a bit sceptical about it but this would be the sort of nonviolent intervention in a war situation, or a situation of violence.
MAB: What do you mean?
MS: Well, you may well ask. I mean, we're constantly what I call playing games, doing scenarios of that situation and trying to find the way to intervene nonviolently. And one thing that is felt pretty strongly in pacifist circles is that it isn't laughable to experiment on a sort of low level, so that ordinary political demonstrations which, perhaps more in some other countries that in Britain, are apt to get really very nasty and very violent, and then you've got a very violent opposition from police, particularly on the Continent. We are trying to train ourselves to keep that situation very much cooler and calm down violence or panic. And to a certain extent, there's been a great deal of success there, but of course it's very small, it's very small work. But it's all a part of a learning process I think. There have been other sort of direct actions of going into nuclear test zones and things of that sort but I look upon that as a form of propaganda more than a -- really trying to stop the men going to work on an air base, and that sort of thing, I think that is more propaganda value. I don't think anybody seriously thinks they're going to stop it. We're not ready to do what you're asking, you know, we're just not ready at all, say to go out to Israel -- no, not ready.
MAB: How much is it the duty of a pacifist to be a missionary, perhaps to speed up this learning that you mention, or to increase propaganda?
MS: I think that's vital.
MAB: I presume there are many pacifists who would agree with everything you said but would think it was a personal issue and wouldn't care to broadcast it to other people?
MS: In Britain, or anywhere, you mean? I get a feeling that there's a pretty high rate of missionary zeal. I mean my complaint about us pacifists is that we react too much to what is happening, to the daily newspaper in other words. We're always one step behind instead of trying to be one step ahead. Obviously we haven't power, I mean we're not in government, I didn't mean that sort of one step ahead, but in our thinking. We wait till some rather grotesque military statement has been made and we react against that. So we're far too much peope who say no to something, and people who say yes to something else, and that would be my main disappointment in our movement. Now I haven't got all the answers, I don't know all the yeses, and that's why I wish many more people were working on the yeses because I would like still to learn a great deal more on positive peacemaking. But the people I move among are all doing a lot of propaganda, I hope not in a narrow-minded, dictatorial way. I don't think they are, I mean, I think they would be aware of that danger. It would't be shrieking-out propaganda such as perhaps you might hear in a communist or fascist state. I'm sure they realise it's got to be done quite differently. And there's a great deal of talk about whatever you do, you do by example, not by preaching, as it were, or in the ordinary sense, or shouting at people -- there are no great orators, I don't think, in that sense.
And a lot of people, particularly the young ones, believe that you've got to do something within your own community, your own streeet, or immediate neighbourhood. And I think it's partly -- well, it's always a very good thing of course, it can only do good, but it's partly an act of despair because they know that we seem to be beating our heads against a great wall of increasing armaments and military attitudes, and military solutions, and so on. And, this is my private opinion, that to a certain extent it's an escape to do something in the immediate neighbourhood because you can see results ... But of course it is also enriching and you do come up against violence, verbal or even physical, so you get certain experiences.
MAB: Apart from wars, and nuclear bombs, and factors of life like that, pacifism, it seems to me, can also be a way of life totally unrelated to nuclear bombs, and which might perhaps be the value of local work, and just learning the outlook for yourself.
MS: Yes, yes, I think that is absolutely true. I think I'm a bit of a learner on that. I lag behind a bit on that I think.
I'm not a person who can't say a harsh word, or do a harsh thing. I can. I don't think I live a very pacifist way of life because there is a sense of denying yourself a great deal of material comfort since so much of the world is in famine, or in total poverty, and I'm not very good at that. Which doesn't mean to say that I live what would be called a high life in London, but I've already smoked during this interview quite a few cigarettes and will be looking forward to a drink, which a lot of pacifists would deny themselves. But it's no good. I'm no less a war resister for that.
MAB: Well, in fact I think that might be a side issue. If you spent all your time trying to be pure and worthy, you wouldn't necessarily be any better, in fact you could well starve to death or fade away in silence, or something.
MS: Yes, that's quite true, and temperamentally, obviously that wouldn't be me. I wish I was younger and a bit stronger physically and I would probably have done braver things and gone to crisis areas, and heaven knows what. You know I don't know what talent I have, or not, but I don't think I would have remained so much in Europe. I know that there's incredible women around who at the age of eighty would do that, but I don't feel like that and feel you've got to be younger. I move almost entirely among very much younger people than myself, but that's all right. We get on OK. That part's all right.
MAB: Does it make any difference that people come to pacifism through different backgrounds, and possibly the only thing that people have in common would be their pacifism, coming from different social and intellectual backgrounds, coming from different religious and philosophical backgrounds?
MS: I find that's the beauty of it, and that's one of the few things that gives me hope that pacifism could become a reality, providing those bombs are never dropped in the immediate -- but simply because of those incredibly different backgrounds, and reasons, so it would seem to me that it's not a kind of elite trying to impose a philosophy, or a way of life, and indeed a solution to conflict, on other people, that there really is a common desire -- which isn't just wishful hoping. I mean everybody says we want peace, but a little bit more than that --simply because it does seem to come from such totally different types of people, political, social, the whole thing. That's my own hope that we've got a chance.
It's just the same I think as when we told about people being brave, or cowardly, say, in wartime, and you speak to such people who've been labelled that way and you realise that what seems incredibly brave to one person isn't particularly so to another, that he or she wasn't being particularly brave because of that person's temperament. And a person who's terrified of doing something but still does it is infinitely braver perhaps than someone who got the VC. And I think it's the same with pacifism.
One of the things that struck me so forcibly in the beginning was -- what I suppose could be called a rather snobbish remark -- I found people who hadn't had the background that I'd had which -- after all the better education you have, and the fuller family life you have, the more confident you are I think, and the less you mind what other people think. And yet I started to meet in the British pacifist movement people who in every other respect would mind very much what other people think -- you know if their curtains weren't clean, or their clothes weren't just right and so on. People with very restricted conventional backgrounds had the courage to stand out, even during the war -- which is much worse than now -- and stand aside. And they weren't, I mean those I've met anyhow, weren't in the least arrogant about it. Thay were very humble about it, very modest, and quite openly said, 'Yes, it was hell the way people turned aside and you weren't liked', and they did mind. And, I mean, I think that's absolutely terrific. You know, I regard that as really heroic. Because it wouldn't have been that part that would have worried me. I came from a slightly eccentric family you know and there it was, everybody was a bit individualistic. But a lot of the people that I've met were certainly not that. They had very much a pattern in all their other attitudes, so I call that courage.
But I think too you live rather close to knowing a bit too much about, say, torture today in oppressed countries, and you're a bit haunted by that. How would you stand up, you know. And I just take it for granted I wouldn't. I just haven't got that sort of bravery. But you have the high good fortune to meet people who've been through this, and it's very important sometimes to meet people, I think, who've been through it and come out calm and still forgiving, not hating their persecutors in a way that would seem normal, and yet not Christian saints or apparently -- very often fortified by Christianity as a matter of fact but not necessarily, and somehow have got through it because they were so sure that violence, and cruelty, and aggression in that sense was wrong. And that helps you. I think that helps you keep going, the examples of others, but, I mean, I've never had anything like that. I've never been inconvenienced in any way at all.
A woman fulfilled
Acknowledgement: We are grateful to Routledge and Kegan Paul for permission to use these extracts form the book, Inventing Ourselves, Hall Carpenter Archives, Lesbian Oral History Group, (Margot Farnham, Project Coordinator), 1989. This interview with Margot Farnham took place on 6 August 1985
Q: Could you say something about what made you become a pacifist?
When we emerged from the war I saw it hadn't done what I'd thought it was supposed to do and that countries and peoples weren't liberated. The Jews who I thought were going to be rescued had been killed by the millions. It was a never-again thing. I think I found it the most destructive thing in my life, and that's someone who came through unwounded, alive, absolutely scot-free. I don't think I ever got over it. It was like an enormous postponement, and I've lived on that postponement ever since. At least for another 20 years, in a sense, I wasted time because it was as though you weren't living life any more; you were camping, living from day to day. And I just went on like that. Never going back to college, never learning very much. Procrastinating. Instead of thinking, 'Now it's over; now really make up for it', it had the opposite effect on me. I thought, 'it's all gone now'.
I realised after the war how we'd been brought up and how incredibly lucky we were and what opportunities we'd been given. My father was a great server; he thought you were in life to serve humanity. I don't mean in a patronising way. I think he was quite pleased that it never entered my head to try to go back to the stage and that I was more serious. He was a remarkable man in that, no matter what any of his children took up, he became very interested in it and he helped and encouraged me.
I had developed a feminist consciousness through my experience in the factory, which I would never have had without a war. My mother had been a suffragette and my father supported that and all the children were treated with a minimum of difference at home, so I didn't know that there was any sexual discrimination. Having got the vote, I thought that was it. And then of course I really met it. The rate for the job hit us between the eyeballs in the factory. We were paid less than the sweeping man and we were doing skilled work. And then I also had to try and understand the women there who didn't mind that, who took that as perfectly normal, whereas I could, in my arrogant Solomonly way, say 'But it's absolutely disgraceful; you're a brilliant toolmaker.' Some of the women were marvellous: what was a six-years' apprenticeship for a young man they were putting into three or six months, and they just made absolute mockery of the myths that men went in for.
The Nationality Law was another big interest: an English man could marry a foreigner and give her British nationality, but a woman couldn't give British nationality to a man, and that was quite a fight. I joined this organisation called Women for Westminster who were interested in those things.
The aims of that group were, regardless of party politics, to get women more interested in parliamentary politics or local government and to stand as candidates, and to help women become much more intelligent voters. They organised a terrific campaign for equal pay and for better marriage and divorce laws. That place, I should think, was full of lesbians, but there weren't many young women there. I learned a lot but it wasn't really my milieu. I have to admit, I clearly didn't like an all-women's set up. But there I met Sybil Morrison and her friends and we all knew that they were lesbians. She was a great pacifist and I admired her very much and learned a lot from her, and it seemed quite natural to me to become a pacifist then.
Those older suffrage campaigners swooned for us. They thought, 'We must get the young ones in.' Of course we didn't like being pushed around because we were young, but I adored those women; I thought they were marvellous. The stories they told, it was just hilarious. But had we got onto anything more private or sexual I should imagine some of them were very reactionary, although clearly they had woman partners, but you didn't ask about their sexual relationships.
Sybil, having made this fantastic discovery at the age of 40, went wild with it. Her friend was very much into the lesbian scene and knew many and went to clubs and places, but I think Sybil was a bit of a prude and not too happy about that. In terms of my pacifism, Sybil said exactly what I wanted to hear so I started learning and she had an enormous influence on that.
I first met Sybil in 1946 when I emerged form my factory and joined Women for Westminster, and I knew her on and off quite well until I went abroad on this journey with my friend for two and a half years; that was in the fifties. When I came back in the middle of the fifties, we renewed our friendship and were friends until she died, which was only the year before last. Very close friendship. We shared many joys and pains together and a lot of pacifism.
She was a terrific woman and I really am indebted to her. She was my guru, I think. At the same time as I knew her so well through her living in this house, there was a lot of human frailties there. I really knew the real Sybil, which was not just the brave suffragette woman, but one with a lot of hang-ups and unhappiness. She didn't take to getting old at all well. But we had a wonderful relationship. If Sybil liked someone she was a most loyal and passionate friend. I always imagined she'd be the sort of person who'd live till 99 or a hundred and still be charging up to Trafalgar Square, but it wasn't like that at all. She really went down physically.
When I came to the Peace Pledge Union in the fifties, they were shrinking and lamenting the past. They wouldn't have exactly said the good old days of the war, but the good old days of excitement and enormous closeness because their backs were to the wall. You got a sense of a very exhausted movement, although they still had splendid meetings and beautiful writers. The immediate fear of war was gone. They campaigned for total disarmament, but there was no urgency. Then along came CND and they lost thousands more members to that. The remaining PPU leaders, including Sybil, couldn't take it. Then when I became PPU general secretary things changed because I didn't have these worries about CND. I certainly envied their size, but I regarded CND as a movement that was not going far enough. I didn't share Sybil's sense of threat.
I think I needed a personal war before I could reject it, but the young people who came into the PPU in the mid-sixties were interested in learning about nonviolent resistance without needing a personal war. Vietnam made the difference. The nearest praise I can give myself is that I opened all the doors to them.
After I'd stopped working professionally for the PPU, I worked with War Resisters International. I thought, I must leave PPU before I've stayed too long. I was not at all well known in international circles and I'd only been a representative for PPU for about six years, but War Resisters were choosing a chairperson and I stood and got an overwhelming victory. That was 1975 and I honestly think it was because I was a woman. I'd like to think that the next time and the time after I got in on my own merits.
Q: How open are you about your sexuality in WRI?
I'm not like the person who is going to be chair who is a gay man and very open in his peace circles. About myself, I've never really hidden it or broadcast it. But I think I do feel more relaxed now. I'm not so afraid of making a faux pas in company, because everybody is that little bit more knowledgeable. I think there is still a lot of prejudice but I've moved in circles where there's so little prejudice that I'm a bit spoiled. I did think in my parting speech at our Triennial, I would like to have said, 'The Queen is dead; long live the Queen', but I don't know if I shall have the nerve to do it in India. I'm not standing again. Ten years is a long time.
Note by Margot Farnham: Myrtle died on 22 April 1987. The last time I saw her was at our Lesbian Oral History Group party in March 1986, when she said, 'I wish you knew when you were going to die; then you could plan things.' She was considering moving to the countryside, where she stayed when she was a child. She wrote about the interview in a letter in February 1986:
"I haven't got it over that I don't give a damn about 'being a lesbian' -- it simply does not worry me. It was the upheaval of loving so deeply and becoming so passionately involved that disturbed my life, not my choice of sex. I was sorry to have upset my parents but it never entered my head to try to change ...
"I had no desire to share my love life with a cause, but it was never shame that held me back ... Anyhow, remember me a happy and fulfilled woman, as I am."
Nearly this entire book could have been made up of tributes to Myrtle Solomon as a WRI leader and as a person. The following represent an editorial choice based on the attempt to give a rounded picture of her. A few other tributes appear in the right-hand margin of this page as brief boxed extracts.
A gift in memory
In memory of our beloved and totally dedicated Myrtle, I wish to donate the freehold office building 55 Dawes Street, London SE17, to the WRI.
She left far too early
As you get older your world shrinks. Or at least one dimension of time -- the future -- seems to grow shorter even as the past continues to expand. Death, an occasional visitor who struck down elderly relatives, comes closer, striking at mentors, personal heroes, until at last death begins to walk openly among those of your own generation.
It is not fear but anger; and not at those who have left, but at the process, at the arrogance of death to touch and take at will without waiting for the motion to be seconded or the consensus reached. In the case of Myrtle Solomon, who died April 22 of cancer of the liver, there is both a terrible loss of someone so very alive that she cannot really be gone, and fury that she, who had worked so very hard, did not have the chance for what she called 'one really good last summer here in the new place,' after she learned the cancer was inoperable and terminal.
In 1946 Myrtle Solomon joined the Peace Pledge Union, the English section of the War Resisters' International. She was young then, just 25, and a woman in what was clearly a man's world. She was also a lesbian in a world which could not comprehend so simple a fact. And she was Jewish. Not orthodox nor do I think particularly committed to being a Jew. But certainly in 1946, with the fact of Hitler not yet a memory, it required of Myrtle a certain real effort to adopt the pacifist position. In 1957 she began working for PPU and became its general secretary.
I believe I met Myrtle in 1966 in Rome at the first WRI Triennial I ever attended. But I'm not sure of this. I know only that Myrtle always seemed part of the English landscape for me, a very special and very favorite person.
After about ten years on the WRI Council she was elected as the chair of the International in 1975. It was a great honor, but one she had fully earned. In a very short time she became the crucial factor in keeping the International going. We had, perhaps unwisely, moved the WRI office from London to Brussels in an effort to give it a stronger base on the continent. Myrtle dashed back and forth between her town house in Chelsea and the little attic she lived in while in Brussels.
Finally, for reasons of finances, the office was moved back to London. This was a huge move -- files, documents, lists, library -- all had to be gotten from the Maison de la Paix in Brussels to a totally new office in London. She did it.
Myrtle was not a brilliant theorist. She was not a great public speaker. What she was (aside from being very warm, witty, with an absolutely wicked sense of humor) was a very very hard worker. Patient. Seemingly undaunted. The office moved back, finances improved, and in 1985 she finally stepped down as chair, yielding that post to me at the Triennial in Vedchhi, India. That Triennial, which she attended against doctor's orders, was a huge success. All of us celebrated our New Year of 1986 in the darkness of an Indian village with wonderful enthusiasm, despite a public address system that worked badly.
Myrtle underwent a serious operation for cancer about three years ago and made a remarkable recovery. But at the WRI Executive in London this past January, when I was staying with her in her new flat, she clearly was not well. She could not stick out a full day's meeting. She seemed in some pain.
Within a month after that meeting, Myrtle called to say she had the news. She had liver cancer; there was nothing to be done for it except to take medicine to control the pain. She swore me to secrecy. She said she wanted to write a little note to the members of Council and to friends, explaining why she would have to give up the post of treasurer, and, in her own way, to say goodbye. That little note was written, but Myrtle never got the chance to sign it. The cancer moved on a schedule of its own and, in late afternoon of April 22, Myrtle Solomon died.
Myrtle Solomon was a special person who is already missed. We weep in frustration, knowing on the one hand how good it was to have known her, but knowing now the price, the pain of departure. There will be no meeting of the WRI which I attend in the future when I will not find myself waiting for Myrtle to come in. The fact, of course, is not that she will arrive late, but that she has left far too early.
from The Nonviolent Activist, published by the War Resisters League, New York, July-August 1987. David McReynolds has been on the staff of WRL since 1960 and was chair of WRI from 1986-88.
A global vision
Myrtle Solomon, who died on April 22nd, was much loved in the inter national pacifist movement. A munitions worker during the Second World War, she turned to pacifism when she saw how war destroyed the very values she wished to defend. As London region organiser and then General Secretary of the Peace Pledge Union (1965-73), she brought an element of theatre into their activities. Her greatest fulfilment came in her role as Chair of War Resisters International (WRI) from 1975-85.
Many people will associate Myrtle with the cause of conscientious objection (CO). For her, CO was a far-reaching idea -- the right to refuse all military related work and research, to be a conscientious objector not just to uniformed military service but in the circumstances of everyday life. COs, she said were all those people who believe in disarming themselves. Her main aim for the international movement was to make it truly global. A Jew disturbed by the perversion of Judaism into Zionism, she tried to put the Middle East on the peace movement's agenda. Her involvement with human rights movements in South America led to a joint peace initiative during the Falklands War with Argentine Nobel Peace prizewinner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. Her supreme moment in her work with the WRI came at the end of her term as chair, when the WRI Triennial conference in India brought together nonviolent activists from 32 countries. Myrtle has left her friends with many memories -- of her humour, of her love for life, of her fighting spirit (and that other spirit she would sip on the sly at meetings) and of how much of herself she was willing to give.
From Sanity, Britain, August 1987
Note by WRI staffmember Howard Clark: Myrtle Solomon was not prominent in the 1980s anti-missiles movement in Britain, so when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament asked me to write a short obituary for their magazine, I wrote what I thought was appropriate for Sanity readers to know about her political priorities.
Pacifism with a smile
When I joined the Peace Pledge Union, Myrtle Solomon was its General Secretary. She had the ability to encourage people to work for pacifism in whatever way they could and I benefitted enormously from her encouragement.
She was one of the hardest workers for peace that I have ever known, yet she never indulged in self-righteous criticism of others. One of the few times I remember her being fierce was when she was protecting some PPU members from another member's over-zealous condemnation.
She was a lovely person: kind, human, humorous and capable of playing as enthusiastically as she worked. Once, while encouraging members to remember imprisoned conscientious objectors, she also suggested that we should enjoy our holidays, because those prisoners would like to know that life was continuing joyfully somewhere.
We should commemorate Myrtle not with tears or sadness but by dedicated efforts to promote pacifism -- with a smile.
from The Pacifist, July 1987
This testimony was given at the Memorial Gathering for Myrtle in London in August 1987. Myrtle drew enormous strength from her relationship with Mary, a devoted friend and steadfast pacifist. Although herself over 80 years old, Mary cared for Myrtle through her final illness, organising the move from London down to the New Forest. Mary died in January 1991.
After 25 years close friendship with Myrtle I have many memories. As I am not a speaker I have written down what I hope to say.
Myrtle had so many qualities that one had to admire or love -- or both. There was her infectious sense of fun and humour that could transform any dull occasion to one of delight and happiness. She gave some marvellous parties in her big studio room at Apollo Place.
There was her ability to relate in a very personal way to individuals, so that they were constantly telling her about their problems. Invariably they got sympathy and help. There was her ability to see the heart of a problem. She often had a point of view that was not the popular one, but subsequently was found to be right.
But perhaps her greatest quality was her courage, both physical and moral. She would drive apparently fearlessly along terrifying mountain precipices, round hairpin bends in France and Switzerland. To me, quivering beside her, she would say, 'Just admire the view'. She often endured great discomfort and fatigue in travelling and working for pacifism, but she always made light of this.
Public speaking did not come easily to her at first, but she persisted and never shirked opportunities, from her first big speech in Trafalgar Square for Pacifist Fortnight in 1962. Perhaps her biggest speaking ordeal was in 1982 when she spoke at the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. She gave those humbugging delegates, who had done nothing but increase the armaments of the world, a pacifist speech such as they had probably never heard.
She had a very serious operation in 1984, recovered and went to India in 1985 to prepare for and chair the Triennial. She came back exhausted but exhilarated because she felt that now the WRI was a truly worldwide movement, something for which she had worked for 10 years.
Her courageous spirit was never more gallant than when in January of this year we were given the diagnosis of terminal cancer. She said, 'I shall tell no one until it becomes necessary, but shall go ahead with the plan to move to the New Forest'. And so she did.
Her last uncomplaining weeks were spent in beautiful surroundings in her dream bungalow. Some of her special friends were able to visit her there, but much of her last thought was about the future of the WRI, which she had served with such devotion and distinction.